The Path to Charter Schools
The great strength of U.S. education is its vision that all citizens can learn from and possess a shared understanding of the world’s historical, scientific, and literary events. The original goal for America’s public schools was to achieve uniformity and social unity through the acquisition of such knowledge and purpose.
Long past that time, the dream for cohesion and unity had all but disappeared. School districts were drawn with segregated housing patterns, and the bureaucracy that had taken over school-based learning yielded poor results from rich and poor alike.
The shortcomings of our education system were codified in 1983 with the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report which revealed a course of study for most students that was a mile wide and an inch deep. By 1986, the answer to Diane Ravitch and Checker Finn’s famous questions, “What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?,” was “not much.” When tested on their knowledge of history and literature, they could correctly answer only 54% of history and 52% of literature questions. In 1992, our Nation’s Report card revealed that only 29% and 18% of 4th grade students were proficient in reading and math, respectively. The numbers dropped significantly when controlling for race and class.
These numbers confirmed what many in education already knew. Roughly a decade earlier, a relatively obscure educator—not a politician—had already proposed a solution. Ray Budde, an English teacher and professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, published “Education by Charter” in 1974, capping years of evaluation and study by concluding that nothing short of fundamental change in the internal organization of the school district would yield results.
Budde’s latter intellectual co-champion of the charter concept was the progressive Ted Kolderie, who argued in his 1990 paper, “States Will Have to Withdraw the Exclusive,” that states could drive the improvement of public education first by opening enrollment—creating choice—and then by establishing choices in the form of viable, recognized, diverse alternatives. Kolderie would play a pivotal role in making charter schools a reality in Minnesota. Almost overnight, the idea caught on in states across the country, and it was distinctly bi-partisan. A Time Magazine 1994 headline proclaimed charter schools “a grassroots revolution.” And that’s precisely what it was intended to be.
These two simple ideas—that teachers, citizens and parents working together could create better programs and instruction tailored to the needs of kids than large, amorphous, unaccountable bureaucracies, and that parents with diverse offerings would serve their children best—were transformative.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our nation’s capital. Whereas it was once ranked dead last, the District’s achievement growth has far outpaced national growth in reading and math scores since the early 2000s, according to the Nation's Report Card. Gains in the District average 9% between 2003 and 2017, compared to just 2% at the national level. The reason? Just as in several other cities after robust reform, charters have had an impact not only on student performance, but also on the broader economic landscape.
In my first visit to Ward 7’s Friendship Collegiate Academy during the first week of classes in 2000, I found it situated among dilapidated buildings. Now its neighbors include high end condos and restaurants. More than 100 charter schools that have opened in D.C. And charters have brought people back to neighborhoods and infused the city with economic powerhouses. Business will tell you that the city’s new school revival inspired them to support further development and economic expansion.
A similar revitalization unfolded across the country. From the opening of the first charter school in California in 1994, instigated by a parent and a superintendent, with help from a Stanford physics professor who prior to charters was not allowed to teach in a public school, to the founders of Boston’s earliest charter schools which started in communities where no one with money would dare live and which now boast economic and social gentrification, charter schools have accomplished their mission.
Public education was dying in the ‘80s. Charter schools provided an alternative to private education where, no matter what their income, parents were seeking refuge from failing schools. With new innovative opportunities for parents and families, they are now widely adopted by traditional districts. Charter schools have drawn the public back to public education.
Making public education work better for all kids—restructuring and reforming it—was the point of the charter school idea. It’s the very point that makes the charter movement a resounding success and remains its guiding vision today. Despite the obstacles and the critics, it’s an incredible story of American ingenuity, resilience, and dedication that has helped transform the lives of literally tens of millions of students who have benefitted from their creation.