Wisconsin “Instrumentality Charters:” Challenge and Breakthrough

Nearly all Wisconsin charter schools outside Milwaukee are known as “instrumentality” charter schools. These schools must be authorized by the local school district, and the schools are generally more district-controlled than what was originally conceived in chartering.

In my view, instrumentality schools do not provide the full autonomy fundamental to chartering. Generally, the more alternative authorizers available to charter schools, the more robust the charter sector.

True, some instrumentality schools in Wisconsin are authorized by supportive districts that provide great autonomy. But it is risky when autonomy depends entirely on particular leadership. What happens when leadership changes? And this hybrid structure requires exceptionally-trained charter governing board members to strike that difficult balance between the charter school board and the district.

That being said, I have come to realize that the law is only part of creating autonomy—the rest is in our hands. Teachers can create their own autonomy—can demand it—and find ways to make it happen. District leaders may see benefits in creating more options responsive to their families. It’s not easy. Some school districts create more barriers than others. But with the right leadership on both sides, it can work.

For those instrumentality charter schools who are making this work—who have created models of high-level autonomy within the district system—I say Bravo! During last week’s Innovative Schools Network (ISN) Conference, I talked with school leaders of instrumentality charter schools who are doing amazing things in Wisconsin. Schools like Wildlands, Valley New School, TAGOS Leadership Academy, SOAR, and others have great records of success and innovation. These leaders of instrumentality schools have managed to create real structural breakthroughs, innovative in themselves, that can be shared with others struggling with the same issues of autonomy.

We can learn from this. It’s another example of “Tradition meeting Innovation.”