Charter schools have largely been a niche operation, serving few students relative to the number of students served by traditional public school systems. Successful charter schools have also generally been seen as a specific intervention, a model for another, single, excellent school. However, the conversation has shifted in recent years to charter schools as structural reform, as a way of radically changing the way schools are governed and managed. What would a charter school district look like? How would this affect educational achievement? This question is different from the question on whether or not single examples of charter schools are effective. (For more discussion on intervention vs. structural reform, please see Sara Mead’s discussion on publicly funded preschool and Rick Hess on educational vouchers).
Here’s one perspective that I have found powerful and novel. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, board member of Aspire Public Schools and KIPP Foundation, argues that “The form of elected school board governance prevents us from ever having an excellent school system, and ever creating the rate of improvement that we see in all the other organizations in our society.” When school districts are governed by locally elected school officials, each successive wave of new board members wipes out the progress made by previous boards, for better or for worse. Unlike non-profits and businesses, that have self-perpetuating leadership, school boards fluctuate widely in goals and approaches, preventing any long-lasting change from taking place, and preventing school districts from continually improving.
Instead, Hastings sees huge promise in moving towards a form of governance more like what we see in New Orleans, with 70% of students in charter schools, because 1) the charter schools will compete with one another to be the best at delivering quality education and 2) charter schools and charter school networks have self-perpetuating leadership models that allow them to continue improving. Therefore, in New Orleans, there is both the incentive to improve (competition) and the mechanism for doing so (self-perpetuating leadership). Hastings predicts that New Orleans will continue improving, not necessarily every year, but certainly in the long run, much more so than traditionally run school districts which, to all intent and purposes, have not changed or improved radically since the early 1900s when attending high school became a large part of the American school system.
Interestingly, Diane Ravitch makes the same distinction between charter schools as a specific intervention versus a structural reform, but she argues that charter schools as a structural reform is dangerous. In her lecture, she praises individual KIPP schools, like KIPP Academy in Houston, for being an excellent specific intervention* but says to KIPP, “You have an excellent reputation, you get great results, thousands of new charters will be created in the wake of your success, but your results are not typical. Warn President Obama, Secretary Duncan. Do you want to go down in history as the exemplar that opened the door to a new era of greed and malpractice? Get out in front, defend your integrity, by explaining to the media that the wonderful results you get are unusual, they are not typical of the charter sector. You must disassociate yourself from the educational robber barons, dilettantes, and incompetents who are following in your wake, making false promising and delivering a low quality education to poor and minority children.”
Although more thought and discussion must go into this issue, along with fact-finding and research, right now I am more inclined to view charter schools as a potentially positive structural reform. The issues that Diane Ravitch brings up about charter school malpractice, and charter schools counseling out the lowest performing students and sending them to traditional public schools instead, can be fixed within a charter school governance structure (which is why districts with strong charter accountability like NYC and DC have had more successful charters than places like Minneapolis) whereas the issue that Reed Hastings brings up about the lack of self-perpetuating leadership in school boards preventing positive change from ever occurring necessitates shifts to a charter school governance structure.
Certainly, the issue is more complex than what I have presented here (for example, what is the community role of schools, and what do we do in an imperfect market where it’s not clear how to judge the quality of a school), but regardless of what you are personally convinced of concerning charter schools, I think that this distinction, between specific interventions and structural reforms, is a crucial one to make in our discussion of education policy.
*Incidentally, I bumped into Diane Ravitch and Mike Feinberg on their tour through KIPP Academy and said hello to both of them.
The first video is of Reed Hastings, the second is of Diane Ravitch.