For Charter Schools, Look Back to Look Ahead
Minnesota ushered our nation into a new era of school reform 25 years ago this month, creating a vehicle that promotes parent engagement and empowers parents to match their children with schools that best meet their needs.
Today, many charter schools are achieving extraordinary outcomes for the nearly 3 million students they serve, especially in communities that have historically been left behind by our educational system. But then again, some are not.
For every charter to be a great school we must continue to focus on three of the principles that were at the core of our nation's first charter school law:
1) Providing quality education. We must remember that outcomes matter—and have always mattered. Charter schools were called "outcome-based schools" in Minnesota's original charter school law. Not choice schools. Not innovation schools. Choice and innovation may have been the means, but better outcomes were the end.
Going forward, we must hold all of our public schools accountable for successfully educating their students. No school should have a perpetual right to exist regardless of outcomes. If a school persistently fails, we have a moral obligation to provide its students with a better education.
2) Serving all children. Our nation's charter laws exist to give every child in our country access to a great education that will prepare them for success throughout their lives, regardless of their backgrounds or address.
Here again, while many charter schools serve all students in their communities, we know some do not. Some will not enroll students in upper grade levels, others counsel children out mid-year, and some even tell families of students with disabilities that their school cannot serve them.
This isn't right. If we believe that charter schools can provide a better education, the academic success of all children should be our priority. We must continue to do better with student discipline, with special education, and with English-language learners.
3) Teachers leading. Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers and the original proponent of charter schools, saw them as a strategy to empower teachers—to shift power out of districts' central offices and into the hands of teachers. Minnesota's first charter school law required a majority of the members of the board of a charter school to be teachers at that school.
Charter schooling was and still is a tool to empower teachers and communities. Yet, too often in the past 25 years, the charter school movement has supported the quick replication of national organizations over the slow development of local educators and community organizations.
We need to support more classroom teachers and communities to start their own new schools. When we do so, we honor the major pillars of the charter philosophy: innovation, engagement, and empowerment.
At the end of the day, parents don't care whether their child attends a charter school or a district school. They simply want a good, safe school for their child, regardless of who runs it.
By doubling down on our commitment to quality education, equity, and teachers who know best, charter schools will continue to provide parents great schools that meet the needs of their children for years to come.
Greg Richmond is the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.