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.