Why I Support Charter Schools: Commitment, Diversity, Democracy
When I first learned about charter schools in the 1990s I was skeptical. I’m what’s known as a civic republican, which means I believe in strong public institutions that cultivate engaged citizenship and promote the common good. It also means I object to 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.
As a public school teacher I identified so strongly with the civic republican ideal of the common school that I spent the better part of four years researching and writing a dissertation about the importance of common schools to a healthy democratic political culture. I found (and still find) the market libertarian’s notion of schooling as a transaction between “providers” and “consumers” offensive, and I distrusted (and still distrust) the motives of people who peddle that notion.
What changed my mind was visiting actual charter schools 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 high schools work. Over the following 15 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.
The first thing I noticed about charter schools was the esprit de corps that animated them. The people in them, young and old, shared a vision and mission that anchored a positive and purposeful school culture. It was clear that everyone — kids, parents, teachers — 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 and vision, and over time so too did the students and parents who enrolled in them. These weren’t providers and customers. They were a community.
The second thing I noticed was how diverse they were. Not diverse in the ordinary sense (though they were usually that, too). I mean that each school embodied a culture, ethos, and pedagogical vision that distinguished it from other schools. I visited schools where students wore uniforms, adhered to strict codes of conduct, and learned language arts, science, math, 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 people who chose to work and learn in it — teachers, parents, students — thrived. And, diverse as they were, the schools all shared certain core aims: To prepare students for college or other meaningful postsecondary study, build their confidence as learners, expand their social conscience, develop their ability to ask questions and seek answers, and help them learn to make sound decisions. In short, to graduate them with the knowledge, skills, habits, and character to live healthy, productive, and ethical lives.
Diverse means, common ends.
I saw this as a masterstroke. It led me to the crucial insight that reconciled charter schools with my commitment to the civic republican commitment to public schooling: Charter schools are better thought of, not as providers of services to consumers, 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 what’s known as civil society, a sort-of-private, sort-of-public social space that provides private individuals both 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 that the United States has always excelled at.
Notice what a voluntary association is not: Privatization. It’s the opposite. Mediating institutions mediate between the private sphere governed by individuals’ self-interest and the sphere of collective action in pursuit of the public good.
This way of thinking about charter schools has the advantage of affirming both their private and public character. They are public in that they are publicly funded and held publicly accountable for meeting publicly-defined goals. They are private in that they are privately managed and parents can choose which ones to attend based on their and their children’s personal needs and priorities. Charters allow educators and parents a degree of agency in deciding 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 where families are assigned a school based on where they happen to reside.
The voluntary, associational aspect of charter schools is their most underappreciated feature. In fact, it’s often treated as a problem. Critics and watchdogs view “voluntary” 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 latter.
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 love to extoll 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. I must admit that to someone like me it’s a very attractive ideal.
But take an honest 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 other 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 exploitation of the developing world. Then one day all hell breaks loose when a group of parents objects to some book being taught in middle school language arts and starts 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, however, in the local atheist First Amendment watchdog organization is on the phone with the ACLU, which is already preparing a lawsuit against the district on behalf of Muslim parents who want greater accommodations during the month of Ramadan and another for a gender dysphoric teen claiming a 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 years without success for a black box theater while a small band of mothers is organizing to oppose the district’s new healthy snack policy because … well, because something about socialism and Big Government and our Constitutionally protected right to colas and candy bars.
This thumbnail portrait of district politics is a bit of a caricature, I know. But it’s a recognizable one. Those who have lived through district political battles know that these kinds of controversies are as common as they are time- and resource-consuming. It’s just one reason why, contrary to most of my school reform colleagues, I sympathize with the people who run traditional school districts. They’re 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. I might go so far as to suggest that the United States has become too diverse for the common school.
Charter schools give educators and families some autonomy to live their convictions without endless contestation. Take a look at my thumbnail portrait of district political dynamics again and notice how many competing positions are perfectly legitimate. AP for all vs career-connected pathways. Emphasis on STEM vs emphasis on arts. A curriculum focused on contemplating the timeless vs a curriculum focused on activism in service of what’s timely. Even if you’re a rabid advocate of college-prep for all, why would you want to deny career-connected learning to parents, teachers and kids who believe in it and want it, and who want to work and learn with others who believe in it and want it? With charter schools you don’t have to. You can create, or teach in, or attend, or send your kids to the AP for all school while your neighbor operates or attends or sends her kids 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 these things should be mandatory for everyone. Those who object to certain books or content believe they should be taught to no one. So, 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. That’s a defeat for the ideologue.
I don’t have much sympathy for those people. Because what they lose with charters is 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 in a system hamstrung by the need to grease every squeaky wheel.
I think the other concern does need to be taken seriously though. That is, the tendency for perfectly legitimate family choices about schooling to produce perverse aggregate outcomes. I’ve been talking as if most parents are making fully-informed, carefully considered decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and school culture based on knowledge of a school’s underlying philosophy and how well it aligns with their own. I’m not that naive. I recognize that, in reality, parents make choices based on proximity, reputation, and where people like themselves send their kids. While I think social justice activists are too quick to impute ulterior (read racist) motives to such choices (at least when those making the choices are white), those choices do tend to produce patterns of segregation that fall along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. That’s a real problem.
In speaking to the segregative impact of charter schools I’ll start with the most common rejoinder: It’s not like traditional school districts are doing much better. We know as much as we do about the persistent problem of segregation because it has persisted for decades in traditional public school systems. This is well-trod territory: 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 it’s one whose 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.
With respect to inequity, I’ll point out that 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 in the schools they’re assigned to. More high-quality charter schools in poor neighborhoods provide choices for parents and potentially better opportunities for their children. It by no means levels the playing field between rich and poor families, but more and better options are better than no options at all.
I find that argument compelling, and I’ve yet to hear a convincing rebuttal. Those I’ve heard go something like this: All schools should be safe, well-funded, and high-performing. 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 do look like a Faustian bargain. But compared to the status-quo, “some kids” gaining better opportunities means more kids getting better opportunities. Want to “rescue” more kids yet? Create more good schools to choose from. Not out of distrust for public institutions (which charters partly are) or belief in free-market fundamentalism, but because it’s 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. That’s not ideology talking. It’s experience.
I doubt that choice and charters can ever provide a complete solution to our nation’s educational problems. Then again, I never believed they could. I support them because of the enthusiasm they generate as voluntary associations of people who share enough in the way of values, priorities, and goals to work together to realize them in service to children and community. That’s good energy to inject into the body politic. When properly understood and governed, charter schools, far from embodying the privatization of education championed by market fundamentalists and excoriated by progressives, actually embody a civic conception of public schooling with the potential to revitalize the institution. If not a turnkey solution to the ills of our current systems (because none such 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 — yes — democracy.