When I first learned about charter schools, I was skeptical. I’m a former public school teacher and a civic republican: I believe in strong public institutions that cultivate engaged citizenship and promote the common good. I also object to the privatization of public institutions on philosophical and moral grounds. And, in the 90s, the most influential champions of charter schools were free market libertarians who aggressively promoted privatization. I wrote a dissertation on the importance of common schools to a healthy democratic political culture. I find the market libertarian’s notion of schooling as a transaction between providers and consumers offensive, and I distrust the motives of people who peddle that notion.
What changed my mind about charter schools was visiting and seeing them in action.
Soon after I joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s education team in the early 2000s, charters became a key feature of our work in high schools. Over the following fifteen years, I worked with scores of charters all over the country, most of them founded with the express purpose of serving low-income youth of color in some of America’s most distressed urban communities. What I learned transformed my understanding of charter schools as educational and democratic institutions.
Shared Ends, Diverse Means
The first thing I noticed about charter schools was their esprit de corps. Young and old shared a vision of a positive and purposeful school culture. Everyone—kids, parents, teachers—clearly wanted to be there. Their founders were fiercely committed to social justice and its realization through a well-defined educational vision. They hired teachers who shared that commitment, as did, over time, the parents and students who enrolled in them. These weren’t providers and customers. They were a community.
The second thing I noticed was how diverse they were: each school embodied a culture, ethos and pedagogical vision that distinguished it from others. I visited schools where students wore uniforms, adhered to strict codes of conduct and learned language arts, science, maths and social studies as discrete subject areas, through direct instruction. I visited schools where students addressed faculty by their first names, wrote their own codes of conduct and pursued individualized, project-based learning pathways, without regard for conventional subject matter classifications. I saw performing arts schools, STEM schools, schools of entrepreneurship, social justice schools, blended learning schools, classical academies, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, schools for girls, schools for boys.
It didn’t matter what kind of school it was, the teachers, parents and students thrived. And, diverse as they were, the schools all shared certain core aims: to prepare students for college or other meaningful post-secondary study, build their confidence as learners, expand their social conscience, develop their ability to ask questions and seek answers, and help them make sound decisions. In short, to graduate them with the knowledge, skills, habits and character to live healthy, productive and ethical lives.
Civic, Not Private
I came to see this balance of shared goals and diverse visions as a masterstroke. It led me to the crucial insight that charter schools are better thought of, not as providers of services, but as voluntary associations wherein private persons with similar values and interests organize to accomplish a public purpose—in this case, the education of the young. According to theorists from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam, voluntary associations form an important part of civil society: a social space that provides individuals with both a training ground and platform for participation in public life. Political theorists call voluntary associations mediating institutions because they’re situated in this middle ground between private and public and help people bridge the two. It’s a form of civic self-organization at which the United States has always excelled.
This is not privatization. It’s the opposite. Such institutions mediate between the private sphere—governed by individual self-interest—and the sphere of collective action in pursuit of the public good.
Charter schools are both private and public. They are funded, regulated and held accountable by the public for meeting mutually agreed-upon performance goals. They are privately managed and parents can choose which ones their children should attend. Charters allow educators and parents to decide how they will pursue the public good of educating the young. Meanwhile, because people join voluntary associations voluntarily, there’s buy-in from the get-go—a huge advantage over traditional zoned schools, assigned to families based on where they happen to reside.
Democracy, Segregation, Inequality
The voluntary, associational aspect of charter schools is their most underappreciated feature. In fact, it’s often treated as a problem. Critics view it as a cover for racial exclusion and class stratification. They distrust their associational quality because it offers their members some autonomy from democratic governance by locally elected school boards. Let’s unpack these concerns, starting with the last one.
Charter schools, like independent schools and other non-profit organizations, are governed by hand-selected boards of trustees, whereas most public school districts in the US are governed by school boards, elected by all the voters who live within a district’s boundaries. Charter school critics resent this. They extol the virtues of elected school board governance and the image it conjures of communities united in deliberative, collective self-determination, a last bastion of direct democracy in action. It’s an attractive ideal.
But look at how democratic governance actually works in traditional school districts. In a relatively homogeneous place it works just fine, because most people subject to local governance agree on what schools should do and how they should do it. Introduce some strong cultural, ideological, political or religious differences however, and things get difficult. This faction wants schools to be more rigorous and reverential toward tradition. This one considers rigor and tradition oppressive and exclusionary, and wants schools to actively subvert them. One group wants more STEM and career-connected learning. Another believes STEM devalues the arts. Yet another views career-connected learning as code for tracking and racism, and lobbies instead for Advanced Placement for All. But the folks over here despise Advance Placement because it’s too knowledge-rich and standardized and stressful for kids. And besides, say those folks over there, all this emphasis on college and careers distracts students from confronting and learning how to fight racism, gender inequality, climate change and the exploitation of the developing world. Then one day all hell breaks loose when a group of parents object to some book being taught in middle school language arts and start packing school board meetings to protest the district’s secular humanist indoctrination. Two years later, the board finds itself divided over sex education after a plurality of conservative Christians is elected in the wake of the book controversy. Before the new board is even sworn in, however, the local atheist First Amendment watchdog organization is on the phone with the ACLU, which is already preparing one lawsuit against the district on behalf of Muslim parents who want greater accommodations during the month of Ramadan and another on behalf of a gender dysphoric teen’s right to unrestricted use of the girls’ locker room. Meanwhile, the booster club’s effort to raise money for a new scoreboard meets opposition from the arts parents who have lobbied for a black box theater for years, while a small band of mothers is organizing to oppose the district’s new healthy snack policy because they despise socialism and big government and believe in our constitutionally protected right to colas and candy bars.
This thumbnail portrait of district politics is a bit of a caricature, I know. But those who have lived through district political battles know that these kinds of controversies are as common as they are time- and resource-consuming. People who run traditional school districts are working as hard as they can to mollify multiple constituencies, pushing conflicting agendas. Critics of district schools want to know why those schools are so bland and bureaucratic and uninspiring. Democratic governance is why.
Charter schools give educators and families some autonomy to live in accordance with their convictions, without endless contestation. In district political dynamics, many of the competing positions are equally legitimate: AP for all vs. career-connected pathways; emphasis on STEM vs. emphasis on the arts; a curriculum focused on the timeless vs. a curriculum focused on the timely. Even if you’re an advocate of college-prep for all, why would you want to deny career-connected learning to parents, teachers and kids who believe in it? With charter schools, you don’t have to. You can create, teach in, attend or send your kids to the AP for all school, while your neighbor sends hers to the career academy. Win-win.
But is it really win-win? For those charter communities, sure. But charter schools threaten those who view public school systems as forums for social activism or political theater. Those advocating reforms such as AP for all, anti-racism or abstinence education believe that these things should be mandatory for everyone. Those who object to certain books or content believe that they should be taught to no one. For a certain kind of activist win-win is a loss, because even though that person is free to open a charter school focused on social justice or Advanced Placement, someone across town might open one with a classical humanist curriculum or career-tech pathways.
I don’t have much sympathy for such ideologues when they lose the ability to hold other people’s children hostage to their partisan agendas. Charter schools are sometimes characterized as replacing voice with exit, which is meant to suggest an erosion of democratic engagement in favor of individual choice. If so, I’ll take the trade-off. Most parents have neither time nor inclination to fight political battles while their priorities or their children’s needs go unaddressed.
However, perfectly legitimate family choices about schooling can produce perverse aggregate outcomes. I’ve been talking as if most parents were making fully-informed, carefully considered decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and school culture, based on knowledge of a school’s underlying philosophy. In reality, parents make choices based on proximity, reputation and where people like themselves send their kids. While Social Justice activists are too quick to impute racist motives to such choices when those making them are white, those choices do tend to produce patterns of segregation along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. That’s a real problem.
However, traditional school districts are not doing much better. Segregation has persisted for decades in traditional public school systems. Although de jure school segregation was banned by the Supreme Court in 1954, de facto segregation continued, often because of de jure segregation enforced through federal housing policies, local zoning decisions and the practices of mortgage lenders. White people who could afford to, fled integrated schools for independent schools or segregated neighborhoods created by those government policies. It’s a long, sordid story. But its most damaging consequences antedate charter schools by decades. Meanwhile, recent research into charter-rich districts, such as New Orleans (where nearly all schools are chartered) has found that charters have done little to mitigate or exacerbate segregation. While charters are by no means the cure for school segregation or educational inequities, they aren’t the problem either.
Most charter school advocates are motivated by the egalitarian moral proposition that poor parents should have the same opportunity to choose among schools as rich ones. Parents of means, the argument goes, can afford to buy houses in neighborhoods with safe, high-performing schools, or send their children to independent schools, while parents of lesser means whose children attend an unsafe or low-performing school are stuck with the schools they’re assigned. More high-quality charter schools in poor neighborhoods provide choices for parents and potentially better opportunities for their children. This by no means levels the playing field between rich and poor families, but more and better options are better than no options at all.
Some argue that all schools should be safe, well-funded, and high-performing and that charters merely take resources from already strapped district schools, so that some students can escape them while others get left behind—what critics call the lifeboat theory of school reform. Compared to the utopian vision of universal excellence amply funded and equitably distributed, charters look like a Faustian bargain. But some kids gaining better opportunities means more kids getting better opportunities. Want to help more kids? Build more lifeboats. Not out of distrust for public institutions (which charters partly are) or belief in free-market fundamentalism, but because it’s simply easier for a group of adults to organize around a shared vision to create a good school from scratch than it is to fix an existing one in the endlessly contested, hamstrung systems we have.
Commitment, Diversity, Democracy
I support charter schools because of the enthusiasm they generate as voluntary associations of people who share values, priorities, and goals. When properly understood and governed, charter schools—far from embodying the privatization of education championed by market fundamentalists and excoriated by progressives—embody a civic conception of public schooling with the potential to revitalize the institution. While they are not a turnkey solution to the ills of our current system—no such solution exists—charter schools have the potential to create a richer, more diverse and more vibrant educational landscape. That’s a good thing for kids, families, communities and democracy.