Charter schools — the smart answer to public education

In the 1960s, the late New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (D) used conservative, market-based, competitive forces to renew and create new jobs in the inner-city wasteland of the minority neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. A cynical New York City reporter (a redundant expression) was heard to mutter, as he heard Kennedy’s pro-market, pro-business ideas to help the poor, “You sound like Barry Goldwater.” Legend has it that Kennedy responded: “Maybe, but I know that I mean it.”

Today we have a concept called “a charter school,” which uses private market forces and competition to improve our public school system — by breaking the traditional monopoly franchise of the public school district, run by local boards of education.

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A charter school, despite misunderstanding by many people, is a public school and is part of the public school system. It has also been mischaracterized as a private school, or as a door-opener for public-funded vouchers to pay for private schools. That is wrong. But it is a school under contract — with one party a public entity — such as the board of education or the school system superintendent — and the other a private party, whether a for-profit company, parents or teachers. 

The deal is this: The contract, or “charter,” allows the outside entity to operate the school free of the uniform rules applying to curriculum, teaching salaries, hiring and firing and other operating details that are applicable to all public schools; but in return, the charter school must deliver on pre-agreed goals, such as performance measured by standard tests or graduation rates. 

What does this achieve? A lot. First and foremost, it busts monopoly power, where one organization, such as the school district, has a captive group of customers, i.e., public school students, who have no choice but to be subject to the monopoly. And it provides the benefit of competition — students have choices, and if the charter school doesn’t work, they (i.e., their parents) can vote with their feet. And perhaps more importantly, the public school system is no longer a monopoly — they must do better or they will lose more students to charter schools within the public school system. 

Success stories of the charter school movement can be found across the nation. In Detroit, with one of the highest dropout rates in the country, a charter school called University Prep Academy was founded in 1998 by the visionary Doug Ross, a former Labor Department official. He received supplementary private funding and promised to meet the goal of 90 percent graduation and 90 percent going further to some type of higher education. And he met those goals, using creative teaching, curriculum and personalized techniques. 

For example, parents at Prep Academy must attend “Learned Team Meetings” with their children three times each year. The academy develops curriculum “one student at a time,” allowing students and teachers to develop their own learning plan, updated at the end of each marking period. Up to eighth grade, instead of grades, the school evaluates students with a combination of learning checklists, rating scales and narrative comments. 

Another success story is a charter school in Chicago, called the Youth Connections Charter School (YCCS) at Malcolm X Community. The contracting party is a for-profit company called K12, run by another educational visionary, Ron Packard. But the school itself is run by a nonprofit board, which includes representatives of public entities and community leaders. YCCS in itself deserves a separate column and study: It serves only kids out of the school system for at least a year — whether dropouts, in jail, or girls who have had babies. The results — using a hybrid of online, supervised education or in-school teaching — are nothing short of miraculous. Graduation rates at YCCS have also exceeded 90 percent.

So charter schools are the latest example of the benefits of challenging government monopolies, with the resulting benefits of competition, private investments and innovation. This lesson is just as true in order to achieve such liberal goals as creating jobs and enrolling lower-income people in affordable healthcare as it applies to public school education.

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of the book Scandal: How “Gotcha” Politics Is Destroying America.