Charter cap debate clouds original intent

Passing ballot question would stymie education innovation

PROMOTING INNOVATION WAS the original purpose of charter schools. As first envisioned by union leader Albert Shanker and others, charters would benefit the educational system as a whole by serving as laboratories for new ideas. With higher levels of autonomy, charters would have the freedom to experiment. Some of those experiments would be incorporated into traditional public schools.  Others, which might not easily translate into traditional public schools, would live on at a smaller scale.

The current debate over Question 2 completely ignores this unfulfilled promise. Instead, supporters generally claim that charters empower parents with choice and foster academic rigor. Critics, meanwhile, tend to question the practices of the increasingly common “no excuses” model and lament the impact of charters on traditional public schools. The contempt of each side for the other has grown so intense that it is hard to imagine a world in which charters and traditional public schools coexist.

Yet an emphasis on the original vision of charter schools—charters as experimental hubs in an integrated network of public schools—might do a great deal to reestablish common ground. Perhaps more importantly, by thoughtfully regulating the charter sector with the aim of fostering system-wide innovation, policy leaders might make it possible to reap the benefits of charter schools without paying the steep associated costs.

Of course, Massachusetts charter schools are regulated. The number of charter seats in each district is limited by the state—a cap being challenged by Question 2. And charters are held accountable by the state for their performance. But current regulations do little to support charters as laboratories. In fact, current state regulatory practices have fostered a climate hostile to innovation.

The chief problem with current regulatory practices is that the state relies chiefly on standardized test scores to determine charter performance—a practice that severely undercuts any impulse to innovate.  Additionally, given some high-profile charter implosions, the state has become increasingly risk-averse, and now only approves “proven providers.” Thus, rather than a thousand flowers blooming, we instead have seen the proliferation of a single model—one oriented towards rigid discipline and test-oriented instruction; three-quarters of the charters in Boston, for instance, are so-called “no excuses” schools.  This kind of monoculture is fine for parents who desire it. But it hardly reflects the wishes of most parents, and it certainly isn’t going to promote systemic improvement.

Eliminating the cap on charter schools won’t solve this problem. In fact, it will exacerbate it, as a small number of chain operators will be in the strongest position to take advantage of the new opportunities to expand. Simply put, another KIPP, MATCH, or Uncommon school is not going to bring new ideas to Massachusetts, or to Boston, where most of the expansion is likely to occur.

So what’s the alternative? How can we promote innovation if we don’t lift the cap?

One option is to capitalize more fully on the Innovation Schools model, which provides traditional public schools with autonomies in six areas: curriculum, staffing, budget, district policies, calendar, and teacher professional development. That’s quite a bit of freedom to think outside the box. The University Park Campus School in Worcester has used its autonomy to develop an early college model and a partnership with Clark University. The Diploma Plus program at Charlestown High School has used its independence to implement a restorative justice program for at-risk students.

Others, like the recently announced Somerville Powderhouse Studios (PHS)—winner of the XQ “Super School” prize—are taking even bolder steps to rethink business-as-usual by eliminating grade-levels and eschewing the traditional curriculum. Even in the case of the latter, however, school leaders are working to strengthen the district as a whole. PHS will soon begin running afterschool programs throughout middle schools in Somerville, and the school’s founders are particularly interested in finding ways for teachers to work together throughout the district.

Another option, of course, is to get serious about the original purpose of charter schools. In districts where families have organized to bring in a charter, and where it would offer something that the district is unable to or unwilling to provide, a new school can bring vitality and energy. Given this fact, it would be worth our time and energy to devise methods for developing charters as true alternatives to current schools.  And we might see even greater innovation if policy incentivized charters and districts to work together to develop a broader range of complementary options. Rushing to expand charters, however, without attending to their unique affordances, would be a colossal missed opportunity for which traditional public schools would pay a very steep cost.

Meet the Author
Charter schools were supposed to be places of innovation—something we have not seen in practice. This vision, however, can still be rescued. Charters can play a critical role in the strengthening of all public schools. But not if Question 2 passes and we eliminate the cap. However ironic it may seem, then, a vote against charter expansion may be the only way to save the original promise of charter schools—as places for innovation.

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross. His latest book, about how to measure school quality, will be released by Harvard University Press in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @Edu_Historian