Charter Schools Turn 20: What we've learned so far
The charter school movement is twenty years old. It is a movement. Charter schools have emerged as the most prevalent strategy for providing greater choices and opportunities in K-12 education for families. What started out as a somewhat revolutionary desire to create semi-independent public schools geared at specific missions and clientele has evolved into a well-established part of American public education.
What have we learned along the way? We have learned, first of all, that good intentions and a lot of energy do not, by themselves, assure a good school. Creating and running schools is difficult work. Over the years, many charters have encountered real problems relating to school management and finance. Some have been closed for these reasons. In some cases the problems are due to incompetence; in others, malfeasance. In any case, this has undermined to a degree the public’s confidence in the charter movement and fed the education establishment’s attempt at limiting it.
We have learned that parents and communities can still take ownership of public education. At base, that is what the charter movement is really all about. Parents and communities who have felt the existing public education system is not providing what their children need have taken ownership of that system by creating schools that better serve their children. This, perhaps, has the most potential to lead to greater reforms in education. When people see other people do what some thought couldn’t be done they feel energized and willing to invest time and effort themselves. For far too long the system has owned us. With the charter movement, the effort is underway for us to own the system.
We have learned that charter schools are not, by themselves, the answer to all that ails public education. Charters might help to meet specific needs in specific places, but the public school system overall needs radical reform. Charters also can provide examples of what works and therefore provide some ideas for greater innovation and reform. But that can only happen if those in charge of public education are willing to open their eyes and embrace charter schools. As it is now, in most places educators feel threatened by charters and eager to limit their growth rather than encourage and learn from them.
We have learned that reforming public education is not for the feint of heart. Twenty years is a long time! It takes sustained, energetic, visible effort to enact even modest reforms to public education. But it can happen and charters are evidence of this.
Looking forward it is important for the charter school movement to retain the attitude that gave it birth: ownership and innovation. As charters become a more common part of the education landscape they run the danger of becoming institutionalized and more about the school than the families the school serves. This is what happened to the K-12 system overall. Charter schools can’t let that happen. If it does, they will become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Gene Hickok is a former U.S. deputy secretary of education and a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors.