Charter schools at 30: A bipartisan path to reducing inequality
The big scandal of American education is that our most disadvantaged students are forced to attend ineffective public district schools, sabotaging educational opportunity and laying the basis for all manner of adult inequality. Conversely, public charter schools of choice reduce inequality and expand educational opportunity by improving the academic and life outcomes of K-12 students.
The 30th anniversary of the nation’s first charter law on June 4 allows us to remember their bipartisan political origin and contribution to advancing educational opportunity, especially for low-income and minority students.
This story begins in 1988 when Albert Shanker, then union president of the American Federation of Teachers, injected the charter idea into national K-12 policy discussions.
Three years later, former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, signed bipartisan legislation creating the nation’s first charter school law. It was inspired by Shanker, introduced by former Minnesota state Sen. Ember Reichgott, with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and supported by Republicans.
In 1994, President Clinton signed legislation creating the federal Charter School Program, co-sponsored by former Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.).
This bipartisan federal approach continued with Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
This federal bipartisanship was equaled in nearly every of the 44 states — plus District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam — with public charter school laws, creating more than 7,500 schools serving 3.3 million students, employing over 200,000 teachers.
Why political bipartisanship?
Chartering allows families the choice of a free K-12 public school that meets their child’s needs, rather than forced assignment to a district school by a school district bureaucracy.
The best charters consistently make greater student achievement gains than traditional public schools. They show what University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski calls “a consistent pattern” of improvement “[with] students [who] are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite.”
Additionally, analysts at Stanford University’s CREDO and the National Bureau of Economic Research show that a sizable charter subgroup — high expectations/high support schools — have significant positive achievement impacts, especially for students of color and those from low-income communities.
Three reasons contribute to their effectiveness:
School autonomy. Charter school leaders have the freedom of action to make school-level decisions on their program, hiring and operations, rather than being dictated to by a central school district bureaucracy.
Accountability for results. If schools don’t meet their goals, they are closed by the public agency that sponsors them. Approximately 220 charter schools were closed in 2019-2020.
Parent and teacher choice. Since charters are schools of choice, families and teachers are not forced to attend them, generating a sense of commitment and association.
This combination of autonomy, accountability and choice creates a competitive dynamic, changing the incentives and governance arrangements of K-12 education. Even Shanker recognized this, which he described as a quasi-marketplace where “parents could choose which charter school to send their children to, thus fostering competition.”
This makes chartering a governance innovation that creates a research and development program for American public education, testing new ways of organizing and managing K-12 schools. Governance innovations have included state Recovery School Districts that restart low-performing schools as charter or charter-like schools — New Orleans is its most prominent example.
The District of Columbia is another example, where an almost equal number of its more than 94,000 students are enrolled in separately governed district and charter sectors. The mayor oversees the district sector, appointing the chancellor who oversees 117 district schools. The charter sector is overseen by a seven-member D.C. Public Charter School Board nominated by the mayor with consent of the D.C. Council. They oversee results-focused performance contracts with 66 nonprofit operators of 123 schools.
Other charter-inspired governance models include partner-run schools where districts transfer school governance to independent nonprofit organizations such as Indianapolis’s Innovation Schools, Denver’s Luminary Learning Network, and Texas’s District Campus Charter Schools.
There are also district-run schools operating with waivers from policies like collective bargaining agreements as in the Fulton County Georgia Charter System, which converted 22 schools to charter system schools.
The uneven quality of America’s district public schools combined with the forced assignment of students to these schools create an early source of educational inequality and an impediment to equal opportunity. Improving the quality of K-12 learning through chartering is the foundation for an action plan to reduce inequality and foster equal opportunity. This is worth remembering, reaffirming and celebrating 30 years later.
Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program. He is the co-author of “Charter Schools in Action” and “Charter Schools At the Crossroads.”
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