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Leveraging Quality Charters 

Caprice Young, Laura and John Arnold Foundation 

Charter public schools serve a variety of roles in 
education reform: innovation labs, havens from 
failing traditional schools; and competitors for pubic 
resources. Education leaders have the opportunity to 
use high quality charter schooling to innovate not 
only in developing transformative schools but, more 
importantly, in creating great public education 

Intent of the laws 

Starting twenty years ago, legislators and governors 
pushed through charter laws specifically designed to 
spur innovation by empowering parents and 
educators to create new forms of high quality 
educational programs. In California, the second state 
(after Minnesota) to adopt charter school legislation, 
the intent was laid out explicitly: 

• Improve pupil learning. 

• Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, 
with special emphasis on expanded learning 
opportunities for pupils who are identified 
as academically low achieving. 

• Encourage the use of different and 
innovative teaching methods. 

• Create new professional opportunities for 
teachers, including the opportunity to be 
responsible for the student-learning 
program at the school site. 

• Provide parents and pupils with expanded 
choices in the types of educational 
opportunities that are available within the 
public school system. 

• Hold schools established under this part 
accountable for meeting measureable pupil 
outcomes and provide the schools with a 
method to change from rule-based to 
performance-based accountability systems. 

• Provide vigorous competition within the 
public school system to stimulate continual 
improvements in all public schools. 

© September, 2012, 

Since then, state after state has enacted charter 
legislation, citing similar reasons for their actions. In 
both expected and unexpected ways and to varying 
degrees, the charter school movement has lived up 
to these intentions across the nation. 

When it comes to education reform, charter public 
schools play three important roles outlined below. 

Innovation labs 

From the start, charter school leaders have 
embraced innovation. In some cases, the new 
practices have been truly novel; in other cases, they 
merely have executed well on existing promising 
practices. Innovations have covered every area of 
school operations from curriculum and instruction, 
to the structure of the school day or year, to 
personnel practices and parent engagement. Some 
of the earliest experiments involved governance- 
engaging educators deeply in the development and 
ongoing management of learning communities. 
These charter-led and/or charter-proven practices 
have made their way into traditional public school 
efforts, although rarely in a collaborative, systematic 

In the most profound innovation of all, the 
development of excellence-focused school cultures 
in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, 
traditional public schools have generally not been 
able to replicate the success of high quality charter 

Havens from failing schools 

Particularly in urban and rural areas, charter schools 
have sprung up as a parental reaction to very low 
performing traditional public schools perceived of as 
being unsafe. When a fourth grader can't read, 
parents don't have time for ten years of incremental 
change. When the educators on a school site have 
negative expectations for their children, parents 
want solutions immediately. They vote with their 



Policy Innovators 
in Education 

feet, even when that vote means creating a school 
themselves to rescue their children. This has led 
some education leaders from the traditional 
institutions to give lip service to charter public 
schools as a "necessary relief valve" until the system 
changes and the traditional schools improve. 

Competitors for public resources 

As the traditional public school systems lose their 
students to charters, and the dollars follow the 
students, some have reacted by trying to copy 
charter innovations— requiring uniforms, creating 
schools with "charter-like" autonomy, involving 
parents in quasi-meaningful decision making, or 
allowing teachers to create new programs. However, 
there is little evidence that a "tipping point," the 
moment when traditional public schools get better 
because a certain percentage (10%, 20%, 90%?) of 
their students have moved to charter public schools, 
has proven elusive. 

It now is fair to ask whether or not a former 
monopoly has the capacity to compete on the basis 
of student achievement or whether the calcified 
structures that bind that system simply keep even 
the most talented educators with the best of 
intentions and near boundless energy from success. 
Those educators have pleaded, "If charters just had 
to follow the rules we have, then it would be fair." 
But that is exactly backwards. If traditional school 
systems would accept the autonomy-for- 
accountability bargain of charter laws, then it would 
be fair. 

Transformation by leveraging quality charters 

What if the "tipping point" were actually the 
moment that a new generation of education leaders 
embraced charter schooling as a tool for change 
AND a solution providing long-term continuous 
improvement? Assume for a moment that the 
personnel and contracting dollars that flow through 
the educational system to political parties and 
entrenched institutions were not the real issue we 
face in education reform. What if the leaders of 
public education nationally embraced the idea that 
schools should be measured by student success not 
bureaucratic compliance? What could be? (And, 
what is starting to come into view in a few 

© September, 2012, 

We would recognize that traditional schooling has 
not failed so much as it has simply become obsolete 
as our world has changed. Academically unsuccessful 
schools could be replaced by start-up and replication 
schools with the capacity to build new school 
cultures and practices without the burden of 
"because it has always been done that way" 
requirements. They could choose to keep what 
works, discard what doesn't, and invent new 
solutions. Every school would not have to be a 
"comprehensive" school. Educators could specialize 
and personalize in order to reach every student 
uniquely. New technologies could be integrated 
more readily into the instructional programs and 
school operations. Parents, students and teachers 
could choose from among a vastly larger number of 
high quality educational choices— to find the right fit 
to flourish. To reach this new reality, big changes are 
needed, especially in big urban school districts. 

1. Governance, not management 
Governance and management of education 
(schools and other learning environments) 
must be separated. The important role of 
public accountability needs to be freed from 
the conflicts of interest inherent in our 
current system. 

2. Embracing chartering as a vital tool 
Remove the barriers to the development of 
high quality charter schools by decreasing 
the red tape, providing access to start-up 
capital, and repurposing facilities. If the 
money invested in school turn-around over 
the past ten years had been invested in the 
creation of new high quality replacement 
schools instead, we would have more high 
performing schools today. 

3. Accountability (un-re-regulation and release 
from old school regulations) 

Charter schools started with very little 
compliance-oriented regulations. Overtime, 
as individual charter schools have made 
mistakes, the entire body of charter schools 
has faced re-regulation designed to make 
sure those individual mistakes cannot 
happen again. The right policy choice is 
usually NOT to re-regulate, but to punish 
offenders. Re-regulation is simply the slow 



Policy Innovators 
in Education 

reinvention of the rule-based, not 
outcomes-based, system none of us wants. 

Some have criticized the charter public 
schools movement as not being innovative 
enough. Many of the same criticisms 
currently are being leveled at the online and 
blended learning schools now (charter or 
not). The main constraint in both cases is an 
addiction to Old School regulations 
requiring, for example, seat-time, 
supervision ratios, and expenditure 
mandates. A genuine focus on student 
outcomes, diversely measured, would 
encourage more innovative improvements. 

4. Rich information about choices 

Parents making choices about where to send 
their children to school have very little to go 
on right now. Savvy parents can look up test 
scores, but we know test scores don't tell 
the whole story. Beyond information about 
the school programs, the processes for 
admission are complex, Byzantine and 
opaque. A public school system with diverse 
options requires more access to information 
for parents and all stakeholders engaged in 

5. Support for renegades 

Inside of every education bureaucracy, 
internal innovators strive to create great 
learning environments despite the barriers 
of the existing system. Over time, many of 
these educators have ''left" to start charter 
schools in a community that embraces 
education entrepreneurship. A new 
education system would cultivate and 
embrace that energy and talent while 
providing the operational support these 
innovators often need to succeed. 

spanning instruction, technology, 
communication and management. In 
addition to new talent development 
strategies, the information technology 
systems to support this next generation will 
be vital to their success. 

Our commitment to an old system of public 
education, despite all evidence of its obsolescence, 
is irrational and blocking our nation from success. 
Public frustration over the state of education has 
made expansion of charter schooling is inevitable. 
Embracing high quality charter schools as critical 
tools to transformation not only is smart, done right 
it will work. 

6. Capacity development 

This next education generation requires 
initiative, training and informed creativity. 
The education leadership world has shifted 
from requiring a workforce made up 
predominantly of rule keepers/followers to 
one of leaders with specialized skills and the 
ability to integrate complex knowledge 

© September, 2012, 



mm Policy Innovators 
in Education