Moving from “Charter vs. District” to the 21st century

For nearly 25 years of chartering, the debate has been about “charter vs. district” schools. As we begin our 25th year, can we finally put that argument to eternal rest? It’s the wrong approach. Let’s focus instead on what brings us together.

Ted Fujimoto of Landmark Consulting, a firm dedicated to scaling innovations in learning says that most of his scaling work has been with district schools. He’s also worked with charter schools. After all, he notes, “A great school is a great school.” He continues:

“What matters is whether the container by which the school operates will allow it to implement a great school design. Just because you have a container doesn’t make you great. If you were an entrepreneur, just because you can launch a C-Corp, LLC, or S-Corp doesn’t make you successful.

‘Charter versus district’ is the wrong argument. What matters is whether the environment allows creation and sustainability of the great school design. In a number of communities, going charter is the only way to guarantee, by law and waivers, these conditions needed to sustain a viable school design–but it is on the charter groups to ensure they are using this opportunity to actually do something worthwhile inside the container.”

This distinction, frankly, has been lost over the history of chartering. Too many people–particularly in the media–have focused on individual charter “schools” rather than the concept of “chartering.” Chartering can create the structure for innovation and new learning strategies to succeed. But the same components of that structure–autonomy, entrepreneurism and freedom, can also allow new learning strategies to succeed in districts. Fujimoto continues:

“On the other hand, school districts have in their power to create these ideal conditions to support great school designs, and they can pass policy and regulatory waivers that can withstand time. In fact, many school districts and their school boards can move faster in getting these conditions in place than most charter school authorizers. They can pass a series of policies and waivers in a few board meetings versus a year or two process to work through getting a charter approved.”

Fujimoto warns, however, that in some jurisdictions, the charter authorizer teams and boards “are sometimes the most bureaucratic bunch out of the public school system, which means that a charter must fit inside their box to be approved.” He laments:

“(Are we) creating a chartering environment where the most innovative and solid school designs can’t get approved by charter authorizers and the vanilla ones are?”

That’s a huge question to ponder as we observe the 25th anniversary of chartering.