Why charters matter

Barbara O’Brien is a persuasive advocate for kids.  As a young corporate executive, she recruited me to visit with Governor Romer in 1992 to convince him that Colorado kids needed charter schools.  There are now 141 charters schools in Colorado thanks in large part to (now Lt. Gov) Barbara O’Brien. 

National Charter School Week is an opportunity to celebrate the 4,600 public school options created in 39 states.  It’s also a chance to reflect on why charters matter.  There are three reasons that public charter schools are important:

1.     Charters provide quality options.  Charter schools have created educational options for 1.4 million students.  Most of these students are low-income students that previously lacked access to quality schools. 

2.     CMO’s are producing reliable quality.  The biggest challenge in education is achieving quality at scale.  There are dozens of charter management organizations each running dozens of high quality schools in low income neighborhoods—often with less funding and without public facilities.  CMOs are more efficient and effective than school districts.  They are piloting new employment agreements, new performance management systems, new school models, and new parent/community connections. 

3.     Charters model good governance—more school autonomy for more accountability.  Charter schools don’t have tenure—they must earn the right to stay open by serving students well and being responsive to parent and community needs. 

Not all charters are good.  Some states have been sloppy in authorization and lack in accountability.  However, the quest for quality has resulted in strict and restrictive authorization policies in many states wringing most of the innovation out of the sector.  We should let more innovators in and kick more underperformers out. 

We finally have a President and Secretary that strongly support charter schools—and they’re ready to invest.  Even with air cover and money, we’ll see many cities and states take a pass.  Adult concerns will outweigh student concerns. 

All schools should operate under a performance contract, should be funded based on the needs of their students, should have access to public facilities, and should be free to contract with staff and vendors of their choice.  If they don’t work, they should be closed and replaced.  All schools should be charter schools.  

(first appeared on HuffPost)

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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