Thinking About Charters

I have been hanging around charter school operators for the past few days, and the experience has left me with some complicated — and perhaps contradictory — thoughts about a movement that I have been following since 1988.

I love the energy, intelligence and dedication of the people I spent time with, but I left the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Minneapolis with some concerns. I think they need to do a better job of choosing their friends and of refining their message, among other issues.

For what it’s worth, here’s my thinking.

Remember: the “charter movement’ is a still blip on the screen. It consists of 5,000 charter schools and 2.4 million students. But America has more than 100,000 schools and more than 55 million students, making it not all that much bigger than the homeschooling movement, which encompasses close to 1.5 million students. This is not Hertz and Avis, more like Hertz and Acme Rent-a-Car of Poughkeepsie. (I made that company up, so don’t bother taking me to task about it.)

I left Minneapolis with the sense that the leadership believes that Charter Management Organizations and Charter Networks are the future. Stand-alone charter schools are put down as ‘Mom and Pop’ schools, and only the biggies are eligible for the newly established Broad Prize for Charter Schools of $250,000 (which went to Houston’s YES Prep Network).

Much of the talk was about “going to scale,” the notion of mass replication of apparently successful strategies. Just what would ‘going to scale’ mean, anyway, in the charter school world? Tripling or quadrupling in size? Big deal! (Go back to the numbers in the fourth paragraph above, and do the math.)

And what is it that they want to take to scale? Seems like it’s all about test scores, and that sounds like school district talk, like Washington’s “Race to the Top” talk.

Another problem with embracing “replication” is the stifling effect on innovation. If I were going to apply for a charter school, I wouldn’t stand a chance, because the school I would want to create would not have ‘senior year’ as you recognize it. I might even eliminate ‘junior year.’ Instead, I would spend those dollars on the early years, enrolling three- and four-year-olds. My ‘juniors’ and ‘seniors’ would be taking college courses and would finish school with high school diplomas and Associates Degrees or Career Certification.

I will wager that there are lots more wild ideas like that out there, but, with the dollars flowing to networks and schools that can supposedly ‘go to scale,’ what chance do they have? Perhaps the guiding spirit of the charter movement ought to be “Let one hundred flowers bloom.”

The Broad Foundation could help here, by establishing a “Rookie of the Year” award, a la Major League Baseball. It wouldn’t have to be $250,000, but it should be substantial. Eli Broad got where he is by taking chances, as his recent autobiography makes clear. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation ought not to be creating disincentives to future risk-takers.

Another problem for me: From day one, charter schools have had problems getting their message across, and even now I will wager that most Americans have no real clue as to what charter schools actually are. I think that charter schools ought to be saying — often and loudly — “We are public education!” Let that sink in, and then go into the weeds with an explanation. Because, after all, charter schools are public schools.

And that’s why I think the charter movement has to do a better job of choosing its friends. I believe that its natural allies are the other men and women who work elsewhere in public education, the 3.2 million public school teachers. I know all about the narrow-mindedness and selfishness of many leaders of school boards and unions, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s within the army of teachers that charter school people are most likely to find understanding and support.

We do, and it's a work in progress.

In the keynote panel I moderated, Howard Fuller, the legendary firebrand and former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee, pointed out that charter schools were supported across the spectrum by folks who don’t agree on much else: pro- and anti-vouchers, for profit and not for profit, liberals and conservatives, and so on. Well and good, but those who believe (as I do) that charter schools represent an opportunity to provide unprecedented educational opportunity for millions of children ought to be examining the motives of those who embrace charter schools.

Some offer their support — and their money — because they see charter schools as a necessary step toward their ultimate goal of dismantling (destruction) of the public school system. Privatizing is their end game. They don’t want any public schools! So wake up and recognize that a permanent network/system/movement of public charter schools does not figure into the plans of those particular ‘friends’ of yours.

To me, that means charter folks, and their associations, ought to be denying entrance to the tent to those whose end game is inimical to their own health. Reject their support and their money, difficult as that may be to do. Like Othello, you think you know who your friends and enemies are. Like Othello, you are wrong. Unlike Othello, you can do something about it before it’s too late.

Another concern: I believe in going to scale, but what has to get to scale is not one brand of charter school, or even charter schools more broadly. What needs to go to scale are effective ways of educating children. Let’s recognize that this can be done in charter-like public schools. It can be done in any public district that renounces “command and control” as its MO.

That’s why I think the charter movement must be reaching out to create alliances with superintendents who have embraced charter schools and with school boards that support authorization of, or provide facilities for, charter schools. How about a third Broad Prize here?

And finally, if you’ve heard me speak about charter schools, you know I compare them to restaurants. To wit, the name ‘restaurant’ tells you nothing about the quality or even the kind of food being served, just as ‘charter school’ tells you nothing about the education being offered inside. You have to have a meal to even begin to know anything. It’s not enough to read the menu (or the course syllabus and mission statement).

The analogy is apt in another way. We inspect our restaurants because it’s in the public interest to make sure they are following appropriate health procedures. And we close down ones that fail to comply, to keep ourselves from being poisoned.

One thing we have learned from New Orleans and its largely successful system of charter schools is that some form of central authority is essential. Someone must police even the finest ‘system of schools,’ whether charter schools or not. Someone must assure that every school’s behavior code is made public, that protections are in place against arbitrary action against students and teachers, that children with special needs are not discouraged from enrolling, and that the application process is fair for all.

“Trust but verify” is a useful mantra going forward, on many levels.

The charter school movement is the most promising development of my reporting career (which began in 1974). It’s painfully ironic that the dream of innovation is being challenged by the impulse to centralize, replicate and ‘go to scale.’ Maybe someday we will have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to schooling, but right now we are not even close. Charter schools are a vital work in progress, nothing more. There’s a lot of work ahead.

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16 thoughts on “Thinking About Charters

  1. So well said John! It seems that the challenge of public education, perhaps inevitably, comes down to how we address the tension between innovation and accountability, creativity and quality. Our country has an amazing talent pool and wealth of experience in public school educators in our traditional schools and in our charter schools. As you point out, they have much to gain by working together. And our public school system’s best protection, our children’s best protection, is for them to do so.


  2. John,

    I was in Oregon all week and missed any opportunity to see you while you were in Minneapolis. This is a spot-on analysis of what’s happening in the charter movement. Thanks for saying it out loud.



  3. John,

    Your points are well taken. They bring to mind Clay Christensen’s analysis of charter schools as “sustaining innovations” that, at their best, provide “new and improved” versions of the same product, i.e., an education system geared to our agrarian/industrial revolution past. What we desperatly need is a transformation of the system that eliminates antiquated rules and processes that have no place in the 21st century. Rather than taking on governance issues, which is what charters schools have done, we need to take on fundamental problems like seat time requirements, Carnegie units, geographical barriers and regulatory barriers to access by all children to the very best teachers in the country. Thus far, the charter school movement has challenged the way we do business but not the way the business best serves its clients, America’s children. Technology now enables us to rethink the learning model so that it becomes personalized and student-centric rather than adult and system-centric.


  4. John,

    Thanks for this post. As a member of the “Charter Movement” and the “Deeper Learning Movement,” I am also often conflicted. We started Envision as a CMO because of the opportunity to innovate not because we were “charter schools advocates.” I am becoming less conflicted since we launched Envision Learning Partners – We are working with hundreds of inspiring traditional public school teachers and leaders around the country to share to share what we learned from the opportunity we have to innovate as a CMO. We are learning as much from our partners as they learn from us.



  5. John voices concerns here but still concludes “The charter school movement is the most promising development of my reporting career…” He persists in his belief in charters despite the now-massive evidence that charters perform no better than public schools while they siphon off much-needed funding and leave the public schools to deal with special ed kids, ELL kids, and kids with so-called “discipline problems.” John is a smart and savvy guy but he’s still drinking the charter Kool-Aid. One can’t help but wonder why. Is it because he thinks that one-off “innovations” can spread on their own? Is it out of frustration with district leaders and/or unions? Or is it because charters are served up by a cool crowd of wealthy and powerful folks–folks who may be well meaning but know little about child development, teaching and learning, or the fundamentals of school and district improvement.


    • “What needs to go to scale are effective ways of educating children. Let’s recognize that this can be done in charter-like public schools. It can be done in any public district that renounces “command and control” as its MO.” That’s the takeaway which I fear you overlooked. I don’t think that’s drinking the Kool Aid…


      • But what is the evidence that a charter-like system could go to scale? First, how many large, district-wide private schools are there? Aren’t all private schools small? Isn’t there some reason for that? Doesn’t it imply that schools that solve their problems by becoming more like private schools will always stay small? And that large school systems have a different set of problems?

        Secondly, your analogy with restaurants, John, is at the core of this whole issue. Restaurants are private. There are no public restaurants. Why, because there is no public benefit from them. We have a public police force because I benefit when I help pay to solve someone else’s crime. But I don’t benefit when someone else gets a good meal at a restaurant. Public schools, then, are not like restaurants. But the core of the problem today is that everyone wants to think of them in a private way, as if they were like restaurants. This will never solve their public problems.

        The public benefit from public education is the success of their students as adults in our society. The real problem with our school system is that the states have no incentive to improve that benefit because it moves out of their states when their graduates move away. That is what holds the whole system back. It forces the states to aim for a mediocre level of excellence, and that trickles down through the whole system. Fixing this would not be easy, but it could be done.

        That is the problem, not how individual schools are run.


  6. Really enjoyed the brief time I spent with you and others as you showed the work-in-progress on New Orleans. Great stuff, which I have come to expect from Learning Matters and you.

    I have attended the National CS Conference for 7 years now and each time I leave feeling equal parts enthusiastic for the road ahead and a just a bit doubtful. Ultimately, it has to be about the kids. But if any of the connecting issues aren’t handled properly, it is not solely a matter of kids suffering (which they do in far too many public charter and traditional public schools), it hurts neighborhoods, communities, states, and our nation on a variety of levels and from a variety of angles.

    In and through all of this (and your production on New Orleans), however, I remain optimistic. I still have an idealistic hope we can get our collective stuff together and do great things for all students in this republic. It is a moral imperative to do so; it is critical to our National Security and international participation that we do so.

    Thanks again John and everyone at Learning Matters!


  7. Dear John.I share your mixed feelings about charters. As a person deeply involved in starting an arts oriented k-8 charter school in Mass, now into its second successful year, I have deep qualms about the direction of the national charter movement. We are an independent mom and pop based on values and commitments. Charters as a whole seem less and less about making great local school communities that do good things for kids not being served well—or by truly innovating— and more and more about testing and standardized methods of production, and, more than that, buying into a free market ideology that seems hostile to public education and wants to replace it with privatizing solutions. The politics of all this is toxic. You did not mention the anti-union bias of the national charter movement, but that is there, too, in this election year. I am bothered by the way that charters in many places cream off academically talented kids and kick problematic kids out for the local public schools to deal with. I am of the old-school Ted Sizer and Al Shanker fundamentalism about charter schools: charters should justify their getting public money by one of two criteria. Either they should reach substantial numbers of kids not now being served well by local public schools, or they should be experimental and innovative in curriculum or special circumstance. There is no good reason why any charter school should get any public money for any other reason. The concept of the public good for public money is operative here; it seems to be dying out and in need of reviving. I believe our school meets both these important public criteria, but have grave reservations about the charter movement as a whole. The scorn for the stand-alone mom and pops is telling. Increasingly the national charter reformers want to weigh the human race by the ton, and are establishing test-driven institutions that won’t do so well dealing with kids by the critical, essential, day to day ounce.


  8. I spent four years of my life, and sacrificed my career, trying to start a charter school that I would like to have for my son and for as many like-minded parents as I can find. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that a lot of the movers and shakers in the charter community are convinced that they have the answers to American public education’s problems, and are intolerant of anyone who questions their assumptions and effectiveness. Back in what appears now to have been the golden age of the 1990s, education reformers were often people with a genuine education background (think Al Shanker and Ted Sizer, mentioned above, or Linda Darling-Hammond or Debbie Meier). Now these people have been replaced by those inspired by quantitative social science and by money-smelling purveyors of educational technology. Education in the United States has gotten worse in a number of ways, and the mainstream charter movement is becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution.


  9. I suppose I get the dismissive nature of one camp for another’s perspective or effort out of a sense of feeling like one is being bullied or held against the ropes against their will, but I think that is exactly the point of what John is saying here. No one is drinking any kool-aid and the “mainstream” charter movement is almost an oxymoron–there is a belief that chartering has the greatest potential to turn things around, but there are as many factions within the movement as there are in most large scale movements.

    However, all of that is irrelevant if it is not all about kids and all about various angles on what makes up public education. When we reject an idea or denigrate honest efforts of people for the greediness or ineffectiveness or whatever of a small minority, seems we are caving to protectionism, a guardianship of the status quo, or just lazy polemics. And that is always bound to yield more of the same inefficiencies, entrenched self-interest and lateral motion that does little, if anything, to grow competent young people.

    This may be naive or painfully idealistic, but “organic fertilizer” (so as not to offend), is “organic fertilizer” no matter how it gets spread. We have to be more committed to making fundamental differences for ALL kids irrespective of zip codes or other qualifiers than we presently are showing. Doesn’t matter whether it is a district approach, a charter approach, a virtual approach, a magnet approach, or even a combination of approaches, the measurement needs to be development of well-rounded citizens who know how to learn and work and understand their role in this universe. Bring it all to the table so our kids benefit in ways returning to our respective corners never will produce.


    • Darren, I wish I could find that “table”; I’ve been active in every virtual forum I can find, but as for real, physical ones, getting there requires money, as well as open doors (I’m thinking of the annual invitation-only New Schools Venture Fund conference near San Francisco, which is a haunt of the very real mainstream of the charter school movement; Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare” covers the movement, including its comparatively minor fissures, pretty well, with the mainstream arguably constituted as the New Vision for New Teachers and Leaders for New Schools Venture-Funded for New Orleans). While I read an interesting Huffington Post article this weekend summarizing philosophical differences between a “No Excuses” crowd and a “Broader Bolder” approach, the differences are less striking than the similarities, including the emphasis on ALL children in ALL zip codes, in spite of the fact that a very small minority of zip codes, and of our socioeconomic spectrum, is receiving virtually ALL of the attention, while the great masses of the next generation are ALL being left behind in the next generation’s global competition for employment.


  10. Having been at this for 42 years as an urban public school teacher, administrator, parent, PTA president, researcher and advocate, I find myself sometimes exhilarated , sometimes infuriated by what I see happening in the chartered public school movement. (Full disclosure, I helped write the first charter law and have worked on this idea for more than 20 years.) A few reactions to John’s comments:
    * No there is no such thing as a typical charter (as there is no such thing as a typical district school). Comparing them is like comparing gas mileage of rental and leased cars. Not a meaningful question.
    * Yes, we should be learning from the most successful district & chartered public schools
    * Yes, some people have been disrespectful to people who start one school and are content to work hard on that. All the wisdom & Success is NOT found in the groups of schools, some of which are, and some of which are not successful. The National Alliance leadership is aware that some of us are very concerned about this. My hope is that they are more respectful toward what I call “independent” charters.
    * No I would not say the charter movement is the only hope or best hope. But at its best, it offers some wonderful ideas and examples of how to help make a difference with others.
    * At the school level, there is great willingness in some states for district and charter educators to work with and learn from each other.
    * At the state policy level, in many states key education groups continue to try blocking any law from passing, trying to put a moratorium in place on new charters, and in other ways block the potential of this movement.


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