The Magazine

What If All Schools Were Schools of Choice?

At the rate things are changing, in ten years you may not recognize American public education

Jun 19, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 38 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Where is the charter school movement headed? Although these independent public schools of choice were once seen as release valves for disgruntled families or safe havens for kids with problems, in urban America, they're looking like a possible alternative to the system itself, foreshadowing a far different public education system than we now know.


Nearly one-tenth of the District of Columbia's public schoolchildren now attend 27 charter schools. By September, when at least five additional charters are likely to be operating, the share of students in charters may be one-ninth. By 2001, it could be as much as one-eighth. This is an amazing development, the more so when we recall that three years ago Washington had no charter schools at all.


And the District isn't alone. Less than two years after passage of Missouri's charter law, 13.5 percent of Kansas City's children are studying in these new schools. In Arizona, the statewide rate nears 5 percent. Philadelphia has seen 25 charters spring up in two years, now accounting for more than 10 percent of that city's public schools. Nationwide, some 1,700 charter schools enroll almost 350,000 children. Education secretary Richard Riley predicts there will be 3,000 such schools by 2002.


More than half of today's charter schools are located in or near large cities. The families that are lined up at their doors -- 70 percent of all charters have waiting lists -- are overwhelmingly fleeing education disasters. They are mostly poor families desperate enough to take chances on new schools with no track records and often operating in decrepit facilities. Private schools are not an option. Charter schools, on the other hand, have given hope to many.


Recognizing these benefits, Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, argues that transforming urban education includes "charterizing" every school. Reinventing-government guru David Osborne invites us to "imagine, for a moment, a public education system in which every school is a charter school."


How would a school system based on choice, autonomy, and accountability actually work? What would it look like? Join us on an imaginary education tour in the District of Columbia circa 2010, where the nation's capital has led the movement to transform America's moribund public education system:


Charter and charter-like schools have come to dominate the District's education ecosystem. Over 90 percent of the schools are publicly financed and publicly accountable schools of choice: Forty-five percent are charter schools, which are typically started by parents or teachers; another 45 percent are contract schools, which operate under management contracts with various private firms and organizations; the remaining 10 percent are private schools, down from around 40 percent at the turn of the century. The distinction between "charter" and "contract" schools is slowly disappearing, but charters are mostly indigenous, self-governing, and limited to single sites, whereas contract schools are often part of a larger network or chain and run more like a business or nonprofit franchise.


The great majority of schools obtained their charters or contracts from the newly formed District of Columbia Education Commission (DCEC), a nine-member education development board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. Board terms for the DCEC last five years, but members may be removed by the new District Court of Education Appeals if they are judged to be irresponsible, partisan, or subject to conflicts of interest.


Since service on DCEC has become a status-conferring civic responsibility, an impressive array of talented, education-minded people have accepted the mayor's nomination. DCEC appoints its own executive director, a job for which the prime qualification is dynamite managerial skills, not education credentials. The executive director handpicks a small staff whose foremost duty is to issue and monitor the charters and contracts. (All schools with contracts obtained them from DCEC, but that is not the only route to a charter. Local universities also issue charters. George Washington University is leading this effort.)


The District also has a dozen "critical condition" schools in urgent need of reconstitution, including schools whose charters have been suspended or not renewed. DCEC's job is to turn them around or shut them down through direct management, outsourcing, or dispatching a "crisis intervention" team. During this reconstitution period, any family with a child in the school has priority in the lottery for entrance into other D.C. schools. No one is confined against his will in a critical condition school.


All D.C. schools are schools of choice, and any youngster may attend any public school in the city. All are funded on the basis of enrollments although extra money (including federal dollars) accompanies students enrolled in higher grades, disabled youngsters, and others with special needs. In addition to the basic school payment, low-income parents may, upon request to DCEC, obtain "supplemental education certificates" worth as much as $ 2,000 per pupil, which they can apply to a variety of educational expenses, including after-school activities, tutoring, and summer programs.


District schools do their own marketing but DCEC provides ample public information, including the huge amount of data now inscribed on "school report cards." Several community organizations, including the Washington Post, strive to supplement DCEC's efforts. Parents, in fact, are awash in information -- which comes to them in print, over the airwaves, and via the Internet -- about individual schools. Dozens of citizens serve as "school selection" mentors and advisers.


Four times a year, a big "school fair" enables families to meet face to face with school representatives to learn more about them. A month or so after each fair, DCEC conducts a lottery for new students (and anyone wishing to change schools). On their "preference card," parents note their three top choices and indicate any special circumstances, such as siblings already enrolled and geographic proximity.


Nearly 90 percent of District families get their first or second choice, and almost everyone gets one of their top three schools. One duty of DCEC is to find suitable slots for those who do not. So far, everyone has been successfully placed. And children who must attend a school that isn't one of their choices enjoy priority in the next lottery, should they wish to change.


The supply of new schools is growing. Oversubscribed schools often open additional campuses or turn faltering schools into branches. Most of the private firms that operate contract schools watch the lotteries like hawks for evidence of what sorts of schools the public wants, so that these can be quickly furnished.


The menu of school options in 2010 is impressive. It includes alternative programs for dropouts, "back to basics" schools, experiential learning centers, and International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement schools. There are schools run by for-profit national chains, some run by civil rights and minority groups (including the Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women), a few operated by educational and cultural organizations (including the National Geographic Society and the Kennedy Center), and still others launched by the Girl Scouts and the YMCA. There are "virtual" schools, schools located on the work sites of major employers (including the Brookings Institution, Blackboard.com, and the U.S. Senate), several dozen "mom-and-pop" charter schools, and schools specifically focused on leadership, theater, public service, or learning the English language.


From the parent's perspective, this new world is user-friendly. Many families opt to place all their children in a school that is convenient to their home or workplace. But it is also easy for parents to select schools on the basis of their pedagogy, test scores, or support services.


The District's new education system is a result of numerous factors: a wealth of information on schools, the snipping of red tape, and capital funding from public and private sources. But the trade-off is strict results-based accountability, made possible by the District's strong new academic standards and assessment system, and a steadfast commitment to reward success and intervene in cases of failure. For D.C. schools, accountability has come to mean both attracting and retaining clients and fulfilling the terms of their charters and contracts. But DCEC is not an autocratic bureaucracy. Any school that feels it has been dealt an injustice can make its way to the District Court of Education Appeals. That court also operates a less formal "magistrate's office" where students, parents, or teachers can come if their dispute with a school was not handled to their satisfaction by DCEC, or if their grievance is with DCEC itself. The mere existence of the Education Appeals Court helps keep DCEC on its toes (as do other education watchdog groups).


School accountability means more than "enforcement." Though D.C. schools are not yet perfectly transparent, a wealth of information about them is readily available to anyone. The District's school report cards contain much of it, but more is published in each school's annual report and kept up to date on school websites. One can, for example, download not only a detailed account of a school's philosophy and curriculum but also ample data on its student and staff characteristics, how it spends its money, the latest test scores, who serves on its governing board, the minutes of their meetings, and so forth. With enterprising journalists, researchers, parent groups, and others constantly scanning such information, school leaders realize that everybody knows what their school is and isn't doing. There are few secrets.


Every charter or contract school also has an annual site visit by a diverse team organized by its sponsor. Such visits yield immediate verbal feedback to the school operator and a written report that is shared with operator and sponsor. Most of the report is then published in the school's report card and put onto its website.


Every five years, a school's charter (or contract) comes up for renewal. This process entails heroic efforts by school leaders to document its performance, as well as rigorous external audits by the sponsor. There is ordinarily a public hearing, often taking the form of a "town meeting" with presentations by students, questions and challenges from the community, and explanations from school staff and board members.


The demise and reconstitution of schools contributes to the dynamism of the school system. In a typical year, a dozen schools close down, lose their contracts or charters, or are thoroughly reconstituted. Most were already on probation, but there are always surprises. Because these are usually painful, the city council recently authorized DCEC and its counterparts to gather more "distant early warning" data about schools.


The District is also committed to boosting the "supply side" of education. It has made grants (augmented by corporate and foundation gifts) to school incubators and technical assistance centers that help create new schools and trouble-shoot when extant schools come in harm's way.


Besides technical assistance, start-up money is available for new schools, as is access to a revolving fund for capital expenses. District schools can tap a half dozen sources of long- and short-term capital loaned by investors and bankers whose risks are mitigated by a guarantee program. This means that a low-income community group or a pair of teachers with a dream can start a school. Enterprise has also seized the construction industry, and a number of schools now occupy striking facilities that little resemble yesterday's schools.


Charter schools are having a magnetic effect on the teaching profession. Now that it's possible for almost any well-educated individual to become a provisional teacher, hundreds of people are lining up for classroom openings. Many think they want to teach for only a few years, and it remains to be seen how this will work out. Some astute school operators are experimenting with a two-tiered personnel system, in which a school organizes itself into teams, each consisting of a veteran teacher (earning roughly $ 100,000 annually) and a few short-termers (earning perhaps $ 40,000 annually). But many other variations are visible.


Each school makes its own salary decisions, but all staff members have the right to participate in the District's generous retirement system. Some schools try to cut corners on salaries, but the marketplace is lively enough that excellent teachers -- and those in scarce specialties -- have considerable leverage to negotiate solid compensation packages. Many schools also offer performance-based bonuses.


The teachers' union is changing, too. The most important shift was from District-wide to school-based bargaining, but changes also include unprecedented attention to professional quality control, training opportunities, productivity enhancement, and new career ladders. The industrial-era model of union operations has waned and most union contracts are flexible, more akin to the partnership agreements of a law firm than to the fruits of traditional collective bargaining.


The union itself now operates several schools, which serve as demonstration sites for fresh approaches to curriculum, instruction, staffing, and school organization. None of this has deflected the union from politics. But more and more of the organization's leadership are reasonably happy products of the new arrangement.


Public schools in the District must still employ certified teachers, but licensure no longer hinges on completing a traditional teacher-training program. Now anybody can obtain a provisional certificate who comes up clean on a background check, holds a college degree, and passes a rigorous exam that stresses subject-matter mastery. One can then earn a "regular" certificate by teaching successfully for at least two years. (All certificates must, however, be renewed every 10 years, at which time teachers' actual performance is appraised, first by their own schools, then by expert teams from the professional licensing bureau.)


Several D.C. accounting firms have opened divisions that specialize in school budgeting, payroll, and benefits. Private companies also specialize in school technology, including computer networks and website maintenance.


How is it all working? The jury is still out. Test scores are up nicely, but they remain significantly below where the District's standards say they should be. Many students still do not reach the "proficient" level. Yet dropout rates have plummeted, school violence is on the wane, and the rich-poor achievement gap is narrowing. At last count, a third of the schools were "guaranteeing" that youngsters who attend regularly and do the prescribed work would attain the academic standards.


A particularly bright spot on the education front is the enthusiasm shown by parents of disabled children. For the charter and contract schools that do not themselves focus on special-needs children, private providers of special-ed services have been a huge boon. Dozens of schools now contract with such organizations.


Amid the generally positive news about education in the District in 2010, we also note three concerns. A few conservative congressmen grump that the new system isn't saving taxpayers any money. A handful of parents complain that they suffer from information overload and must make too many choices. And a few politicians grouse that the unelected Court of Education Appeals has too much power.


Education paradise has not reached the nation's capital. But there is an unprecedented level of ferment and optimism, and early returns suggest that the new arrangements are gaining traction and improving the lives of thousands of youngsters.




GREGG VANOUREK;Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation; Bruno V. Manno is senior program associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation; and Gregg Vanourek recently completed his MBA at Yale University. They are co-authors of the just released Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education (Princeton University Press).