Understanding charter schools and their role in public education

The battle over charter schools today is largely due, I believe, to a misunderstanding of the charter school idea and its purpose.

Charter schools were created to influence traditional public education. When public education didn’t meet the needs of all students in the 1980s, the charter idea was birthed with two simple, but transformative goals in mind, according to a report titled “The Path to Charter Schools” by Center for Education Reform.

The first was that teachers, citizens and parents working together could create better programs and instruction tailored to the needs of kids than large amorphous unaccountable bureaucracies. This was in the words of liberals and progressives in the day, not free-market conservatives seeking to pay homage to Milton Friedman or attempting to undermine public education.

The second premise was that these diverse offerings would then be available to parents to choose from in order to ensure that whatever offerings were provided would best meet the needs of their students.

Given the warring currently going on between teachers’ unions and charter schools, one might be surprised to discover the original vision for charter schools has been credited to Albert Shanker, a long-time president of the national teachers’ union the American Federation of Teachers. In his 1988 speech, Shanker estimated that only 20 percent of American students were well-served by traditional classrooms.

The point of the charter school idea, the Center for Education Reform continues, was to restructure and reform public education so that it worked better for all kids, and “it’s that very point that makes the charter movement a resounding success.” Minnesota became the first state to get charter schools into law—with DFL legislators leading the way. And since the law’s inception in 1992, tens of millions of students across the country have gone through the charter school system.

As publicly-funded schools, charters are subject to many rules that govern traditional public schools. But one difference is instead of deriving all its authority from a centralized entity, like a school board, charters are held accountable by an array of regulatory bodies. Charter schools are also held accountable by a “charter” (contract) under which they must operate. The contract “defines and protects the charter school’s autonomy over key operational decisions while specifying anticipated performance outcomes,” according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Public education has expanded from a one-model governance structure to include a system of schools that offers students a learning environment that best meets their needs. The charter school concept became law because schools couldn’t give most students even the basic education. The vision of charter schools brought liberals and conservatives plus more to the table back in the 1980s and 1990s, and should continue to do so today. If it truly is “all about the kids,” then those pushing for charter moratoriums and overregulating them should consider the millions of families they are working against who want to see these schools continue and grow.