City Journal

Kathleen Sylvester
Setting Schools Free
Across America, public "charter schools" are declaring independence from central bureaucracies.
Summer 1994

In January 1992, the San Diego school district gave Loyal Carlon a key to an abandoned 1950s-era elementary school in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and told him he could start his own public school. This bold experiment came at the urging of a local bank official, who had suggested to the school board and the teachers’ union that they allow one school in the district to operate free from the central office bureaucracy and union rules to see if it could produce better results for students.

Darnall E Campus, as the school is known, opened in September 1993. With a one-time waiver from the union, Carlon was able to hire teachers who believed that traditional approaches to learning had failed their students and were eager to invent something better. Carlon says he and the teachers got “all the latitude we needed” from the local school board, which allowed them to control the curriculum, decide which books to use, and even order their own supplies rather than waiting months for the district’s central purchasing to do it for them.

But several months into the experiment, the teachers’ union balked, and the district became hesitant about extending the school’s autonomy indefinitely. The union wanted to make the waivers from its rules a start-up provision only. The staff at Darnall E balked, too. “After controlling their own destinies, no one wanted to go back,” says Carlon. Fortunately, they didn’t have to. The California Legislature had just passed the state’s charter school law, and the teachers of Darnall E Campus applied for charter status. In September, as it was opening, their school officially became one of California’s first charter schools.

The idea of charter schools is one of the most promising education reforms currently being debated. Although the details of charter school proposals vary widely and many issues remain unresolved, the basic idea is that organizations outside the public school system should be allowed to apply for a charter to open their own public schools and have the freedom to make their schools innovative and distinctive.

The band of reformers at Darnall E has seized the opportunity this freedom affords. The school groups children in developmental “clusters” rather than strictly by age. Teachers spend three hours a week planning, instead of the 45 minutes that the school board allows in other schools. Teachers work in teams of three so they can help children in small groups. The school has a day-care center to make things easier for working parents and offers English lessons for immigrant parents at night. And the school is open year-round. “There’s nothing sacred about June,” Carlon says.

While it is too soon for documented results in the form of test scores, anecdotal evidence of the school’s success is mounting. Parents from surrounding neighborhoods want to send their children to Darnall E; teachers are enthusiastic; attendance is strong; and the school’s five hundred pupils are described as happy, productive, and self-motivated. And this is a school whose students have special needs: some 90 percent of them come from welfare families, and 60 percent are nonnative English speakers in a student body that is 45 percent Hispanic, 25 percent Asian, and 18 percent African -American.

Token Schools?

Despite his success, Carlon is worried. He fears that in a few years, when San Diego school officials are asked about charter schools, their response will be, “Yeah, we have one.” If Darnall E becomes San Diego’s only charter experiment, Carlon will take little comfort in being the principal of a token successful school.

That is the fundamental dilemma that charter school advocates now face. Howard Fuller, Milwaukee’s school superintendent, warns that the charter movement will fail if it results in only a handful of good schools across the country. “We know how to create individual schools that are good,” says Fuller, “but how do you reform a whole district?” Or, for that matter, the entire U.S. educational system?

Yet the idea of charter schools is so attractive precisely because it attempts to reform education one school at a time. In a nation where the public education system has stubbornly resisted wave after wave of reform—from standard-setting to restructuring to infusions of federal dollars—the charter school movement offers hope in a new form: the power of the market. Successful charter schools will attract students from other public schools, putting pressure on those schools to improve. As Ted Kolderie of Minnesota’s Center for Policy Studies puts it, charter schools have “withdrawn the local school district’s exclusive franchise on public education.” And because charter schools are public schools, they avoid many of the practical and political problems associated with vouchers, another market-based reform.

If charter schools are to be successful on a wide scale, they must prove their worth. The first charter schools will be judged by the parents, students, and communities they serve. If these “customers” are satisfied, the schools’ charters are not likely to be revoked. But in a nation where citizens are increasingly demanding accountability from government, charter advocates must verify their results by objective standards—improved test scores and the like—or their movement will not progress.

Varying Models

Charter school advocates have identified nine essential elements of the reform (see box). But states that have passed charter school legislation have implemented the idea in various ways. The most important variation involves chartering authority. Georgia passed legislation that allows only existing schools to become charter schools after a majority of the faculty, staff, and parents approve the idea. But the Georgia law gives local school boards absolute veto power over charter proposals. Massachusetts, by contrast, has passed the strongest bill to date. It bypasses local school boards entirely, giving the state’s education secretary the authority to approve charter applications from businesses, parents, teachers, and colleges.

States allow charter schools varying degrees of autonomy. In Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota, charter schools are legally autonomous entities. In Georgia, however, they remain under the control of the local school board. Kolderie maintains that charter schools can succeed only when they are fully autonomous. “In return for the autonomy, they accept real accountability for student performance,” he says. “That’s the essence of the ’charter’ idea. Without that, it isn’t really a charter proposal.”

Others suggest that while complete autonomy is desirable, it may create difficult burdens for struggling charter schools. Charter school founders, most of whom are teachers, may not have the administrative skills to deal with matters such as food service, transportation, and maintaining the school’s physical plant. “What these schools are about is teaching and learning; let the school district fix the roof,” says Eric Premack, a consultant to California’s charter schools.

John Elwell, director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation, warns that charter legislation may create “empowerment in a vacuum” if it withdraws administrative support while freeing schools from regulation. To counter this problem, the center and other organizations are setting up networks of innovative schools that can pool their managerial skills and resources. Colorado has a League of Charter Schools through which educational innovators share the services of realtors, lawyers, and accountants and advice on managing janitorial, food, and transportation functions.

Confronting Obstacles

Proponents have also learned to counter the many objections raised by defenders of the status quo. “The first thing we heard was that this was a nose in the door to vouchers,” says Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge, who sponsored her state’s charter legislation. To the contrary, she argues, “charter schools are an incentive to embrace the public schools, vouchers are an incentive to abandon them.”

In Colorado, charter school supporters were accused of elitism, even though the state’s charter proposal favors schools catering to at-risk students and ensures equal access to all the new schools.

And opponents in each state have urged advocates to wait—to let other education reforms run their course before trying a market-based approach. Impatient parents have often rejected this argument. In Colorado, after a charter school bill failed in the legislature, parents organized, wrote letters, and made phone calls to their representatives in Denver. “Many legislators had to run in 1992, and many who came back said they heard about charters from their constituents,” says Barbara O’Brien of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “Their comfort level with the idea went up.” The legislation passed the second time around.

Unresolved Issues

Several serious issues remain unresolved. One is the critical matter of charter schools’ relationship with teachers’ unions. The ideal solution is for teachers to be employees of their school (rather than the school district), with a right to organize and bargain collectively in separate bargaining units. But for now, such arrangements are being resolved on a case-by-case basis as charters are written.

In a nation with 2.3 million unionized teachers, such an incremental approach will not work in the long run. The San Diego teachers’ union, which allowed the teachers of the Darnall E Campus school a waiver from union hiring rules, now vehemently opposes further exemptions. Teachers’ unions have been the leading opponents of charters in many places. Thus, it will take a broader accommodation to prevent the unions from slowing the progress of the charter movement.

Two of the most interesting unresolved issues will be played out in Massachusetts, where the state recently approved 15 schools for charter status. Three of the new elementary schools will be run by Whittle Communications’ Edison Project. The Boston Renaissance Charter School will focus on teaching all students a second language, ensuring computer literacy, encouraging parental involvement, and strengthening students’ character and values. Edison’s two other schools, the Lowell Charter School and the Worcester Charter School, will be run on the “academy” model, in which teams of teachers work with the same groups of students for several years.

These schools will be the first charter schools in the country run by a for-profit company. Some critics worry that private firms will put their responsibility to investors ahead of student performance. Defenders counter that as long as these organizations meet performance standards, such concerns are moot.

The second issue raised by the Massachusetts charter law is its provision allowing some schools to choose their own students. Affinity-based schools, such as math and science schools, necessarily must be allowed to select students prepared to deal with their curriculum. Charter school advocates will have to reconcile that practice with the idea of equality of opportunity, an important tenet of charter schools. Unless this issue is resolved, charter schools could end up “creaming” the best students, leaving others to inferior schools.

The British Experience

Charter proponents in the United States can look for guidance to Great Britain, whose charter school movement began with the landmark Education Reform Act of 1988. The British have resolved some of these issues, yet continue to struggle with others. The British equivalent of charter schools, grant- maintained schools, receive direct grants from the British national government, allowing them to operate free from local government control. These schools, which number about 1,000 among Britain’s 33,000 schools, represent a range of grade levels, sizes, and academic types.

Donald Naismith, former chief education officer of the Wandsworth Borough Council, a central London school district, explains that the Conservative government takes the view that “the customer knows best.” Parents and students are served most effectively, Naismith says, in a “market” of self-governing schools that compete for pupils and are able to buy services to respond to their customers’ needs without the intervention of local or central government.

The central government holds schools accountable through a nationwide system of quality control. England and Wales have a new national curriculum, guaranteeing all pupils a broad and balanced education in whichever school they choose. A national system of assessment monitors student achievement at key stages of their development. Test results and other performance indicators, such as truancy rates, are published routinely. And every four years, each school is visited by an inspector from the national government.

Two principal reforms create the “market” for parents and pupils: Local Management of Schools, known as LMS, and “opting out.” In LMS, essentially the British version of school-based management, many budgetary and management functions are devolved to the school level. Education scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe have criticized this reform. In their 1992 book, A Lesson in School Reform from Great Britain, they argue that while LMS purports to promote autonomy, it decentralizes only a handful of decisions, thus maintaining the traditional top-down bureaucracy.

“Opting out” allows schools to declare independence from their local school council (district). The central government gives operating funds, which otherwise would have gone to the local education authority, to grant-maintained schools, which use the money as they see fit.

The results of “opting out” have been mixed. While grant-maintained schools were expected to emerge from the clutches of their local education authorities and develop distinctive personalities, many simply opted out and remained the same. In some cases, failing schools opted out precisely to avoid being closed by their local councils.

On the other hand, competitive pressure from these independent schools spurred many of the local councils to make dramatic improvements in schools still under their control. Wandsworth, for instance, created a technology school and an art and design school as alternatives to the district’s new grant- maintained schools. Naismith reports that Wandsworth, where 40 percent of students chose private education or traveled to other districts in 1990, now sees just 27 percent of its students making those choices. At the same time, the district’s “inflow” rate has increased 13 percent.

“The schools taking advantage of their freedom are happy, and all schools are now alerted to designing courses to improve themselves,” says Naismith. Patronage and lobbying for school service contracts have fallen off because schools are permitted to keep the money they save.

John Howells, a Welsh educator and Harkness Fellow who has studied the U.S. charter school movement, observes that Britain’s Conservative government, which has an enormous political stake in the success of these reforms, has been frustrated by the slow pace at which school governing bodies are choosing to opt out. The government is now raising the competitive stakes. First, all schools—whether grant-maintained or remaining within a local authority’s responsibility—will be financed on the basis of enrollment. Under this scheme, roughly 85 percent of schools’ income will depend on how many pupils they enroll.

Second, the central government is taking away the authority of local school councils to restrict enrollment into popular, over-subscribed schools, and has recently announced changes in the way capital funds will be allocated, allowing popular schools additional funds for expansion.

Third, the government is giving parents more responsibility for deciding whether a school will opt out. Parents will vote every year on the status of their children’s schools.

Two significant differences characterize the American and British approaches to market-based reform. The American approach—even in its embryonic stages—offers more choice. The British system offers many more incentives for reformers.

In Britain, parents and students have a limited market. They may choose only among existing schools—either grant-maintained or locally controlled. This limits their educational options, limits competition among schools, and fails to take advantage of the power of markets to generate diversity and innovation. The U.S. system offers a choice among existing schools and newly created schools; it also offers a choice of schools operated by entities other than school systems, such as local governments, universities, and private, for-profit firms.

Teachers in the U.S. system also have more choices. They participate in decisions about whether existing schools will convert to charter status, and they may apply for charters themselves. British teachers, by contrast, essentially “convey” with the school building; if it goes grant-maintained, they go too.

In England and Wales, however, there are two powerful incentives at work to lure reformers. When a British school opts out, it is truly freed of most top-down central control. The local education authority is removed from the chain of command, and the school need only answer to parents and meet specified national standards. In many states, however, charter school applicants face uncertain negotiations for the waiver of various rules and regulations governing such things as class size, school hours, and curriculum.

And while U.S. charter schools often are required to operate on less money than other public schools, the British central government is very generous to its grant-maintained schools. At the outset, these schools receive seed grants for startup expenses such as computers, new staff recruitment, and staff restructuring. All grant-maintained schools also receive annual capital allocations for physical improvements.

Is there a spectacular improvement in British education after five years? Naismith thinks not. But, he says, there have been significant changes, and the foundation of reform is worth building upon. With some midcourse corrections—and perhaps some lessons exchanged across the Atlantic—market-based school reforms are worth pursuing. Loyal Carlon, who runs the school with the odd name in San Diego, agrees. “We’ve got a five-year contract,” says the principal of Darnall E Campus, “and we think we’re getting the hang of this.”

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