Why Charter Schools Are Coming

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

A bright man with a vibrant message bounced through Winnipeg last week, and moved our community a few steps closer to breaking out of our public school malaise.

Dr. Joe Nathan, the Director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, was here to lead a workshop on school choice for Manitoba’s school board trustees.

Dr. Nathan had strong words about the education monopolies that predominate in North America. Why should parents need their approval to seek alternative schooling for their children? "Does Wal-Mart," he asks, "have to ask the Hudson’s Bay Company for permission every time it wants to open a new department store?"

An unapologetic liberal and fervent defender of the public school system, Dr. Nathan is also its sternest critic. He cites the case of a school in Los Angeles that ordered 30 computers through the division bureaucracy. Three years later, they still had not arrived.

The school took advantage of new state legislation allowing alternatives and set itself up as a charter school. The order for computers was filled immediately, and at a much lower price. The school wrote a cheque on the spot, without having to wade through layers of administration.

Dr. Nathan believes that the charter school method succeeds because it ties rewards to performance. Charter schools must state in advance what goals they intend to reach. If those goals are not met, their charters can be revoked. His research confirms the power of such sanctions. In case after case, charter schools have succeeded in significantly raising student achievement.

The problem with public school monopolies is the same one that besets most of our old-style public sector institutions. They receive the same amount of funding no matter what the outcome. Budget funds continue to roll whether or not the organization succeeds in its core mission.

Dr. Nathan pillories the stakeholders in established public schools who offer pat excuses for their failure to deliver the educational goods. They like to blame parents and social pathologies beyond their control. In many instances, charter schools have stepped in and turned things around in neighbourhoods with the most dismal prospects.

Dr. Nathan can provide many examples where public school officials gave up trying to educate children at risk, and charter schools did the job rather quickly. In one case, in a very poor district in Springfield, Massachusetts, students scored 62 per cent below average before a charter school took over. One year later, test scores from the same children were 62 per cent above average.

Rather than stand in the way of choice and diversity, authorities should encourage charter schools as a stimulus that will, by means of friendly competition, force regular public schools to upgrade their product. Public opinion has changed so drastically in some American states that some teachers’ unions, once adamantly opposed to school choice, now provide seed funding for potential charters.

It is a simple recognition of the overwhelming success of the charter school movement. Dr. Nathan’s Center recently produced a study which echoed the glowing reviews that similar assessments of charter schools have already received.

This is an idea that cannot be stopped. With appropriate controls — no admission tests, no cherry-picking, standardized tests to monitor performance — charter schools can challenge and raise the performance of our public school system.

This may be its salvation. Dr. Nathan quotes Abraham Lincoln: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

In eight short years, charter schools have grown from one small venture in Minnesota to more than a thousand in dozens of states. Twelve are now chartered in Alberta.

It’s turning into an idea that’s impossible to resist.