An elementary school principal asked Charter Schools? Why, Exactly?  Following are five answers to his question.

1. Underserved students.  When two thirds of American kids don’t get what they need and deserve, we should ask questions.  Charter schools have been a twenty year attempt to better serve low income and minority students. Thoughtful authorizers (usually states, districts, and universities) can use charter schools as a targeted strategy for attacking pockets of under served populations and neighborhoods.

The principal wondering about charters referenced a CREDO study suggesting that charters don’t, on average, do any better than traditional schools. Because most charters are new and still enrolling kids, that typically reflects the fact that most kids that enroll in charters are way behind–if kids enter a school three years behind, make good gains and take a test at the end of the year, they may still below grade level. The most important finding of the CREDO study is that students do better every year they are in a charter school.  It’s growth that matters and we need to get better at measuring that (especially for full and part time online learning).

2. Good governance. The primary benefit of charters is perpetual versus political governance; the opportunity that all non-governmental organizations have to recruit a board to a mission gives a charter school a chance to create and sustain a focus over time compared to the oscillating elected leadership of school districts.

Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO and former chair of the California State Board of Education, makes the case that education reform is treating symptoms–the real problem is politically elected leadership. Reed notes that, “Oscillating political leadership in the nation’s urban centers has wiped out promising reform agendas in San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle, Houston, and other cities.” He makes the case that it takes decades to achieve excellence and that requires perpetual governance—a board recruited to support a mission.  Reed would like to see all schools operated by nonprofit boards and cities supported by a portfolio of multiple operators.

The Fordham Institute seems to be the only one paying attention to this root problem of the anachronistic patchwork of American education governance (read their report on rethinking education governance.)

3. Performance contracting. A third important benefit is performance contracting: the ability for a city or state to write a contract around a set of desired outcomes–and not to renew the contract if these outcomes are not achieved. All schools should operate under a performance contract and should earn the right to serve the public.

We’ve learned a lot about authorizing in the last two decades, but not all charter school authorizers have exercised thoughtful oversight. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (where I’m an advisor) launched a campaign to improve oversight and to ensure that failing schools are closed.

4. Anywhere anytime learning.  The opportunity of personal digital learning means learning is less place-based and more student-centered. States and cities should develop new online and blended learning charter schools and helping existing schools make the transition to digital.  Every family should have access to at least one great neighborhood school and to full and part time access to online learning.

To see how your state is doing, check out the Digital Learning Now! report card detailing how all 50 states are doing against the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.

5. Portfolio of options.  Families want and deserve educational options. As a former public school superintendent, I am encouraged to see most urban centers embrace a combined ‘portfolio’ approach of supporting struggling schools and opening innovative new schools.  Three dozen cities participate in the Portfolio School District network supported by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.  These cities demonstrate that charter and district schools can coexist as part of a coherent strategy to boost access to quality schools.  (See my weekly Smart Cities series for a review of education in 20 urban centers.)

What’s next? Two decades of experience with performance contracting in the delivery of public education has wrought some hard earned lessons. We know what good authorizing looks like. We know how to open great new schools.  Now it’s time for Great Boards for Great Schools.   That’s why I recently joined the board of Charter Board Partners — to promote quality at scale by recruiting and training great boards for great schools.

And after 20 years of chartering, it’s also time to update state laws. There are 7 Ways States & Districts Can Use Authorizing to Boost Quality & Innovation.

Charter schools are, at a minimum, an important strategy for extending access to quality.  In fact, we can use chartering strategies to transform the education delivery system.

For more on charter schools, see:

Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning
Fix the Root Problem: School Governance
Charter Schools Model the Future
Good Urban Schools: A Portfolio Approach
Performance Contracting: Model for Governance, Provisioning & Accountability
Smart Cities: Strong Charters Will Soon Serve Half of DC Students

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