First, advocates must answer a fundamental question: What type of relationship should the nascent charter sector have with the long-dominant district sector? The tension between the two is at the heart of every political, policy, and philosophical tangle faced by the charter movement.I think in general, I fall into the market economics approach to the issue, i.e. that the market place of education needs more players. Higher education is a marketplace and an overwhelmingly effective market place.
But charter supporters lack a consistent vision. This motley crew includes civil rights activists, free market economists, career public-school educators, and voucher proponents. They have varied aspirations for the movement and feelings toward the traditional system. Such differences are part of the movement’s DNA: a National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) study found that the nation’s charter laws cite at least 18 different goals, including spurring competition, increasing professional opportunities for teachers, and encouraging greater use of technology.
Because of its uniqueness, chartering is unable to look to previous reform efforts for guidance. No K–12 reform has so fundamentally questioned the basic assumptions—school assignments based on residence, centralized administrative control, schools lasting in perpetuity—underlying the district model of public education. Even the sweeping standards and assessments movement of the last 20 years, culminating in No Child Left Behind, takes for granted and makes use of the district sector.
Though few charter advocates have openly wrestled with this issue, two camps have organically emerged. The first sees chartering as an education system operating alongside traditional districts. This camp contends that the movement can provide more options and improved opportunities, particularly to disadvantaged students, by simply continuing to grow and serve more families.
The second group sees chartering as a tool to help the traditional sector improve. Chartering, the argument goes, can spur district improvement through a blend of gentle competitive nudging and neighborly information sharing.
Both camps are deeply mistaken. For numerous policy and political reasons, without a radical change in tactics the movement won’t be able to sustain even its current growth rate. And neither decades of sharing best practices nor the introduction of charter competition has caused districts to markedly improve their performance.
Chaters need to take the offensive against the institutional players. Chaters and their supporters need to be vocal, loud and quite frankly confrontational with groups like teh unions, like the school boards, and others. Without a demonstration of effectiveness and solid argumentation, there will be little to show for the phenomenal growth.
Smarick's article is long and contains a number of great ideas. But what it all boils down to is that charters need to have an identity or they will remain just a sideline, almost a footnote, to public education in America and that is wrong.
Hat Tip: Joanne Jacobs