Skunk Works: K-12 Education

Can “skunk works” exist in both the charter and district K-12 education sectors?

As the author of the first charter school law in the nation, two factors drove me in championing the chartering law: creating innovative new opportunities for learners and empowering teachers with autonomy. In my view, Innovation + Autonomy = Results.

Autonomy is critical for skunk works, and therefore, chartering creates the most potential for their success. We must distinguish, however, between innovation and replication in chartering. Innovation allows something to occur new. Replication may involve expanding an innovative strategy, but its replication model standards are often strict, with little room for creating something new as the strategy expands. Today, there is room for both in the chartering world. But autonomy—and skunk works—will flourish primarily where innovation is allowed to occur new.

Can skunk works occur in district schools? Of course. As highlighted in my February 26 blogpost, a group of unionized teachers in the Denver school district created and operated their own teacher-powered school for years. There are various “site-based school” opportunities created by policymakers around the country, offering teachers the opportunity to govern themselves.

But let’s face it—skunk works are much harder in the district sector, because autonomy is rarely granted. It is tough to challenge the general school district culture where leaders often value consistency and sameness.

Over time, powerful forces can change that. And we, as 21st century education leaders, can help lead the way.