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Why Charters Have Not Faded

I'm away this week, but I'm happy to report that author and veteran educator Sarah Tantillo has graciously agreed to step in. Sarah works as a consultant at The Literacy Cookbook after a career as a New Jersey high school teacher. She'll be sharing some thoughts and reflections on her forthcoming book, Hit the Drum: An Insider's Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement. This week, she'll be exploring why charter schooling took off, why some charter schools are lousy, and why chartering is one reform that's stuck around. 

A couple of decades in, although challenges persist, charters show no signs of disappearing. In fact, in the 2016-17 school year, 58 districts (including major cities such as Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles, to name just a few) had a charter school enrollment share of 20 percent or higher, and those numbers continue to grow. In education, so many ideas have come and gone. Why hasn't the idea of chartering schools been a passing fad?

I raised this question with individuals I interviewed for my book, and a few key themes emerged.

Several people noted that as a practical matter, chartering is more a governance reform than an education reform. Richard Wenning, a researcher who has worn many hats and who helped to create the Colorado Growth Model, noted that charters are "a fundamental governance reform—a democratic governance reform, also—in the interests of liberty, autonomy, and competition. All of those values are captured within the charter movement and make it hard to go away . . ." Moreover, he added: "They are now one approach to creating a supply of schools that is available to a smart authorizer, superintendent, or commissioner. On the accountability side, charters are becoming very influential in how all schools are held accountable."

Indeed, the concept that schools should be held accountable for their performance and failing schools should be closed has definitely taken hold in the mainstream. We've seen failing and under-populated district schools replaced by charters in various cities—for example, in New York City, the District of Columbia, and Newark, N.J., where the percentage of students attending charters increased from year to year and by 2016-17 was at 10 percent, 46 percent, and 31 percent, respectively.

This growing fondness for accountability is also reflected in how educators use data: School districts and charter management organizations increasingly use data not simply to measure performance but also to inform instruction, both to identify and share best practices across campuses and to uncover ineffective practices and change them. One could argue that the standards movement also contributed to these data-related habits: People trying to meet standards must, after all, measure the extent to which they succeed. That said, the chartering concept of "autonomy in exchange for accountability," which arrived in 1991, planted the seeds for these habits to sprout—a full decade before No Child Left Behind (in 2002) established yearly testing in grades 3-8 and 11 and nearly two decades before the Common Core Standards (in 2010) established year-to-year K-12 standards in English Language Arts and math from coast to coast.

Beyond their function as an influential governance reform, charters have also tapped into three things that Jim Griffin, former head of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, described as "inherently American and lasting": choice, decentralization, and entrepreneurship.

"Our appetite for choice in our society and our country: that's not going to change," he told me. "We're accustomed to it, we expect it, we believe that to a degree we're entitled to choices and options in our lives and in most everything we do." The thousands of citizens who marched in New York City and Albany in support of their children's right to attend charter schools made it clear that parents—especially those whose options were previously limited by their income and zip code—have come to expect public school choices for their children. Those choices didn't exist in many cities before charter schools appeared.

As for decentralization, charters have pressed us to bring the management of the public good down to a "much more local, much more manageable, much more personal" level. Griffin remarked: "I don't believe anybody looks at Los Angeles Unified School District and says, 'Gosh, if we had it all to do over again as a state, when we're organizing the state of California, we're going to organize our public school system around a million-student school district.'" While it remains to be seen what size is optimal for effective governance of schools, charters have raised that question and are experimenting with the numbers.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, as Griffin and many others also asserted, charters have tapped into the American entrepreneurial spirit. "Whether it's starting schools, or starting support organizations, or starting leadership programs, or whatever it is," he said, "charter schooling has brought opportunity—brought people into K-12 public education—that would never have gotten into this field otherwise." Numerous school incubators, CMOs, EMOs, and different companies and consulting opportunities have emerged and created space for substantial entrepreneurial, creative activity and a talent pipeline that did not exist before.

Where will these entrepreneurs take us next? We shall see.

Sarah Tantillo

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