Chester Finn

Is the Charter-School Movement Stuck in a Rut?

As the U.S. charter fleet sails past the 5,000-school and two-decade markers, there is reason to worry that it’s getting complacent, unimaginative, and self-interested.

This criticism is separate from the quality-and-achievement challenges that beset many current schools and the “caps,” fiscal constraints, and political/bureaucratic barriers that continue to confront far too many of them in far too many places. Here I refer to accumulating signs of resistance among the movement’s own captains and admirals to schools that would fly the charter flag but don’t behave exactly like the typical charter schools of the past twenty years.

It would be a pity if the charter enterprise were now to grow rigid and intolerant, considering how well it has accommodated some extraordinarily interesting and unconventional schools, institutional forms, and uses of chartering unimagined back in 1991. Think of teacher-led schools sans principal, schools for disabled kids, and schools for dropouts. “Virtual” and “hybrid” schools, some of them operating statewide, some as part of national franchises. For-profit operators and multi-campus management organizations—even single charters harboring multiple schools with distinct operators. We have single-sex schools. Early-college schools. Schools with curricular foci that range from “back to basics” to “experiential.” Schools that restore “local control” to small towns aggrieved by excessive district consolidation. Schools that experiment with unconventional union contracts, even a couple of schools run by unions.

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