Has Chartering Lived Up to the Pioneering Vision?

Have we lived up to the pioneering vision of chartering?  Education Week writer Arianna Prothero and I discussed this question last month as we reflected on 25 years of chartering. Here are a few thoughts from our discussion. See her June 3, 2016 blogpost for more.

It’s true that some charter schools don’t look different from traditional district schools.  Does that mean they aren’t innovative?  I look at it this way:  There are two levels of innovation. The first is meeting the needs of the child in a way that doesn’t exist in another school in that area.  To that child, there’s a new, innovative opportunity, even though that learning opportunity might be available for other students elsewhere.

The more critical innovation within chartering is that the law itself–the policy–allows new and different schools and learning strategies to constantly emerge.  New schools are allowed to try new ideas.  As long as we have the law of chartering, we have the basis for innovation. Now it’s up to the leaders. It’s up to those entrepreneurial leaders who are well-prepared and who have the passion to make innovation happen. The chartering law doesn’t create the innovation; it creates the opportunity for innovation for the right leaders.

I do think we missed a few things along the way to realize our vision. We missed the need to pay more attention to authorizers and make sure they were trained to understand their role. Not only do they need to be compliance-oriented and hold charter schools accountable, but they also need to be supportive in helping the school be creative in finding solutions to meet its  benchmarks in new and different ways. We don’t always see that. We see some authorizers just checking off the compliance boxes without a lot of support.

We also need to educate volunteer charter school board members in strong governance practices.  Sometimes board members fail to understand that their role is to hold the school leader accountable.

We didn’t imagine the need for startup funding or facilities funding. A number of schools do not receive those funds in their states. That’s a problem. We just thought they could do more with less. Unfortunately charters are receiving on average 70 percent of funding that district schools receive. That’s too big of a gap.

I didn’t expect as many networks and management companies in chartering. Many of them have been helpful and productive. Some have not been so helpful. I don’t want anyone to think that there is only one kind of chartering. There’s room for everyone. I just want our students to succeed. If they are succeeding, they are getting results, then students are being served well.