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May 20, 2004

charter schools and democracy

I'm enthusiastic about charter schools, but not for the standard reasons. A charter school is a public institution that operates independently, free from most of the usual bureaucratic tangles, with a direct "charter" from some higher authority such as the city or state. Charter schools are supposed to improve outcomes for the kids they enroll, by providing alternative approaches precisely tailored to their students. They are also supposed to improve the performance of public education generally, by incubating new models and by increasing parental choice (hence, competition).

Charters don't seem to work particularly well for these purposes--no better than standard schools. (See, just for example, this RAND report, in .pdf.) It's too early to say for sure, but charter schools certainly don't look like a magic formula for higher test scores or graduation rates.

On the other hand, they do no harm, at least on average. And they have a huge advantage that's distinct from student educational outcomes. As a society, we need more opportunities to propose solutions to public problems, band together voluntarily, and then work directly to implement our ideas. This is "public work"--one of the most satisfying aspects of citizenship, and a great American tradition. In general, opportunities for public work have shrunk over the last century because of increasing professionalism, standardization and bureaucracy, and a diminished role for the public sector as a whole. Social work and education used to be great fields for public work, but they are now exclusively the domains of credentialed specialists who are often unable to innovate.

This is where charter schools come in. Someone has a new idea, persuades a few friends to join her as teachers, and together they create a new institution. At any rate, that's the story of the charters that I know personally: Cesar Chavez in Washington and the East Bay Conservation Corps in Oakland. Typically, a charter school can't get off the ground without supportive parents, so the odds are relatively good that parents will play active roles in its governance. Flexibility, creativity, and parental participation don't guarantee better educational results, as the RAND study shows. But they are intrinsically valuable goods--much more important, in my book, than a few extra points on the SAT.

Some ideas for charter schools are good; others are lousy. And some of the best ideas aren't well executed. The average results for charters appear to be about the same as the mean for other public schools, but I suspect this masks a lot of variation--a wide range from best to worst. That range is a consequence of democracy. The worst charters can be shut down, but the damage they do is the price we must pay for creativity in the public sector. I think that price is well worth paying.

Posted by peterlevine at May 20, 2004 03:03 PM

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