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Can Charter Schools Be 'Democratic'? Should They?

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The coming partial return of charter schools from the state to the Orleans Parish School Board, which I described in a prior post, raises interesting questions about the role of local democratic control of schools. My argument here is that the governance of charter schools, and especially an almost-all-charter system like New Orleans, has to be less democratic than traditional school districts.

Though it might seem obvious, let me start by being precise about what I mean by "charter schools." I view them as schools that have autonomy over all major management decisions (including especially personnel, budgeting, and curriculum) and operate under contracts approved and funded by the government.

And here are what I see as the relevant elements of democracy: It requires that citizens have (relatively equal) power to elect representatives who then have the authority to make key decisions. Robert Dahl, the political scientist, refers to this last part about key decisions as "controlling the agenda." Dahl also suggests that decisions are more democratic when they are more localized because localization allows greater participation and voter influence. By these definitions, traditional local school boards are highly democratic--elected locally without significant limits on their authority.

In theory, it seems possible for a locally elected board with unlimited span of control to oversee charters. In fact, I think some believe that this is what the coming new system in New Orleans will accomplish. But, in practice, the governance of charters cannot be as democratic as a local school board. First, the history of education shows clearly that democratically elected school boards inevitably set rules that remove the autonomy of schools. If charter schools are autonomous by definition, then they have to be less democratic.

Moreover, charter schools are supposed to operate under performance-based contracts, which means that if performance targets are not met the contracts are ended and the schools are taken over. But this too is very unlikely in a local democratic system. History shows that local school districts do not close or takeover schools unless they simply cannot afford any other option and even then they do not close them based on performance. I still view autonomy as more central to the basic definition of charters, but accountability of the type that demands takeover of low-performing schools is a close second. History tells us that neither school autonomy nor aggressive accountability is really possible in a highly democratic system

This problem came to mind as I read Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim's very interesting book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education. In it, they present a new and creative system, very much like what is coming in New Orleans. They call their plan "democratic" in part because the new local board they propose (the "Citizen Education Council") could still be locally elected. But, again, the only way to maintain school autonomy is by severely limiting the authority of that elected board and therefore limiting democratic accountability.

This is also why critics of the coming system in New Orleans view it as a "Trojan Horse."  I don't think that's the right metaphor because those supporting the new law have been upfront that the local board's authority will be significantly limited. But it does clearly capture the concern about limiting democracy.

Some might disagree with my argument on the basis of some undemocratic aspects of the way school boards work. For example, voter participation rates are very low in those elections (partly because the elections are held separate from statewide and national races). As a result, teachers, their families, and their unions comprise a large share of the votes in school board elections. While this is unfortunate, it is not undemocratic since most voters are simply using their authority to defer to others.

To be clear, this is not an argument that charters are completely undemocratic, nor an argument against the potential of charters to help students, nor an argument that charter schools cannot be "public schools." It is an argument that charter schools worthy of that name must sacrifice democratic accountability.

This is not a new problem. In fact, all areas of government face it. We elect representatives who not only write laws but hire political appointees who select administrators who, within their legal capacity, make the decisions that affect the lives of citizens. They are police officers, firefighters, social workers, doctors, and nurses, and what scholars call them "street-level bureaucrats." Should they also be charter school leaders? Or, more precisely, should we do more to force elected representatives to delegate decisions to those who are on the ground trying to help people?

Maybe. Charter schools can effectively pursue public goals, at least in some situations, but there is a trade-off with democratic accountability and I think it's best to face that head-on.

Douglas N. Harris is Professor of Economics, the Schleider Chair in Public Education, and the founding Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University (www.educationresearchalliancenola.org).

You can follow him here on Twitter.


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