The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Accountability is Key to Charter Schools" by The Detroit News, 10/22/98.

Original Title:
The Future of Charter Schools
by Barry McGhan

Governor Engler says that if he wins a third term he will increase the number of schools that can be chartered by universities and other public agencies. Can this happen? Some would say, "Only if Republicans control both houses of the state legislature."

However, my experiences at a recent conference, EDVentures '98, suggest another answer. The meeting, at Northwestern University, was sponsored by the Association of Educators in Private Practice and the Charter Friends National Network. About half of the sessions dealt specifically with school choice and charter school issues.

Michael Bakalis, Dean of Northwestern's School of Management, spoke about the decline of centralized control of public education. This is happening, he says, because failing schools threaten the American Dream of self-realization. Paul Hill, professor of public policy at the University of Washington (Seattle) and co-author of Reinventing Public Education, discussed public school contracting. He works with the Brookings Institute to create models of school districts that contract services. Chester Finn, Jr., former Reagan Education Department bureaucrat, talked about the radicalization of school reform. He recounted Massachusetts Senator John Kerry's recent speech on school reform--where Kerry expressed the hope that all schools will eventually become charter schools.

If a college dean, a professor of public policy, a liberal think-tank, and a Democratic senator from the only state that voted for George McGovern for President all fall on the charter side of school reform, then even a Democrat-led Michigan legislature may not be far behind. In other words, it may not matter who wins control of the legislature this fall.

But, are there drawbacks to such an expansion? Could be.

The charter school sessions I attended had lively panel discussions, with many questions and comments from the audience. Yet, the conference was not just a charter school love-in. Serious questions were raised about charters--even by supporters.

A main concern was for the accountability of charters--called by one speaker the linch-pin of the charter school movement. Clearly, if charters are no more accountable than regular public schools, what is the point of their existence?

Professor Hill made an equally significant point--that when charter schools are not accountable for students' performance, they risk losing their independence from the education bureaucracy. That is, if charters can't perform as advertised, they will lose their autonomy and come under the supervision of some outside agency.

These are harsh truths, and I'm not sure the folks involved in running charter schools have thought much about them. They've been concerned with the day-to-day work of getting schools up and running.

While it is reasonable to give completely new schools some time to establish themselves as viable institutions, they eventually have to prove themselves. We are at a point where many schools have been in existence for at least three years, those that converted from private schools, even longer. These schools need to embrace the idea of being accountable now.

However, grasping the accountability nettle to one's bosom won't be easy. Few people enjoy being accountable for their performance, even when they've been given a greater degree of freedom and autonomy to reach their goals.

We can expect to find out more about the successes and failures of Michigan charter schools soon. Two state-funded charter assessment projects are due to report out their findings this fall. One is by the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University, the other by Public Sector Consultants in Lansing.

These two reports--from a public agency and a private company--should be interesting and informative. However, they still won't get at the essence of Hill's point, because these evaluations are imposed on charter schools from the outside. What Hill is talking about is something different.

What he means, I believe, is that charter school operators need to take responsibility for being accountable. This accountability is not just to parents, who can "vote with their feet" if they feel the school is failing their children. It is also to the public, through some negotiated agreement that gives the public's assessors a legitimate and ongoing role in evaluating school performance. When both parents and the public's representatives are satisfied with a charter school, everyone else should be expected--unless they have new information--to sit down and shut up.

Are charter schools the answer to all the problems of education? Some will be as inept and self-serving as a few public schools are now. Should current public schools be converted to charters? Many are performing just fine and should convert only if they need greater autonomy.

However, in all cases, charter schools need to satisfy both public and parental demands for accountability. Without this linch-pin, the charter school wagon's wheels might fall off.


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