Charter Schools as Catalysts for Change

Governor John Engler's proposal for charter public schools may do more by itself to transform the culture of public education in Michigan than all the myriad reforms debated and adopted in recent years, if other states' experiences are any indication.

Charter schools are public schools which enjoy site-level authority over most school decisions--from budgets to hiring--in exchange for agreeing to be accountable for student outcomes. They would be liberated from the stifling bureaucracy and rigid work rules that frustrate good teachers and administrators. Under Governor Engler's proposal, individuals and non-profit associations and even existing public schools could petition a host of public authorities to become charter public schools.

In Colorado this past May, a bi-partisan coalition succeeded in passing charter school legislation despite the unified opposition of the public school establishment. Among the leading opposition groups was the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB). Less than three months after the bill's passage, however, Randy Quinn, Executive Director of the CASB, was singing a different tune: " [the charter school legislation] can be viewed as an opportunity to do something new and creatively different...[it] forces the school board to reexamine its role. Rather than serving as provider, the board has an opportunity to become the purchaser of education services.... This is a role that opens up all kinds of possibilities for school boards."

Why the dramatic change in Mr. Quinn's thinking? He explained, "...the fact is we are faced with a new way of doing business; we either go kicking and screaming into the future, or we lead the charge and make the best lemonade ever to come from a sour fruit."

Massachusetts recently adopted charter school legislation and thereby prompted a refreshing change in attitude on the part of a teacher union. Responding to the prospect of new competition, the Boston Federation of Teachers proposed to waive many unproductive work rules in six schools.

From Minnesota comes two more revealing stories. In Rochester, parents had been unsuccessful for several years in getting their local school board to start a Montessori program in the district. After a private Montessori school petitioned to become a charter public school under new legislation passed in 1991, the Rochester school board responded by adopting new policies that allow for the creation of a district-based Montessori school.

In Westonka, Minnesota, the local school district made national news in the fall of 1987 as one of two districts in Minnesota hit hard by the first year of a cross-district choice program. The district responded to the potential loss of students and the prospect of competition by developing a technology plan that would distinguish it from the outstanding school districts all around it, and by making prudent spending cuts rather than threatening to cut out football or band.

The result: in the fall of 1990 the district, with a long history of failed millages, passed a millage vote with nearly a 75% majority. The number of students who have transferred out of the Westonka School District has declined significantly since then.

A new middle school started by Wayne State University this fall is currently Michigan's only charter school, but the initial demand for it speaks volumes about the need for change in Detroit's public schools. More than 5,300 applications were received from parents of children all over the city, for just 330 spots assigned by lottery. The school serves mostly low-income families; 53 percent of the children enrolled are eligible for the free lunch program, dismissing the unfounded fear of opponents that charter schools must by definition be "elitist." The foothold that the Wayne State school now has in the Detroit market will spur other schools to improve.

Each of these stories has a compelling message. Educators, like everyone else, have comfort zones they seek to protect, until the cost of preserving the status quo becomes greater than the cost of change. For many of us, change has become a routine part of our work lives, due in great part to the effects of global competition. The incentives for positive change that competition provides in the private sector could do wonders if allowed to work in the public sector as well.

As the stories above relate, charter schools can transform the culture of public education from one of defensiveness about change to one of seeing change as opportunity to do things better. That's something all the other reforms of the last twenty years have failed to accomplish within the system. For this reason alone, charter schools deserve citizen support.