(Clarification: About 5 percent of public school students attend public charter schools. The word ‘charter’ was missing in an earlier version.)

Charter schools can be confusing. Funded by the public, some people mistake them for private schools because of the way they are funded and operate. That’s what happened recently to Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, the head of the Senate education committee, who appeared at a Brookings Institution event and asked at one point in the discussion, “There are some private charter schools, are there not?” asked Alexander.  Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, then the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, replied, “Charter schools, I guess as we define it, are public schools that operate under charters from the state rather than private, so they’re subject to the same tests.”

With all the attention that school reformers and philanthropists shower on charter schools, it would not be unusual for someone to be confused into thinking that these schools educate a big percentage of U.S. public school students. They don’t, at least not yet. Though estimates differ, it is generally said that about 5 percent of the public school population in the United States attends public charter schools.

And confusion reigns for some people who believe that charter schools always do a better job educating children than traditional public schools. That’s nowhere near true. There are some great charters, but they are also some awful ones, and many just average ones as well. The very narrow prism through which schools are evaluated today, standardized test scores, show a decidedly mixed bag for charters (as well as for traditional public schools).

So what to make of charters? A book titled  “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education,” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter takes a look at the issue. Here’s a Q & A I did with both authors about their book. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and an expert on socioeconomic integration and labor issues in public schools.  Potter is a fellow at The Century Foundation and a former charter school teacher.


Q) Tell me first what your book is about and why you wrote it.

Rick: A Smarter Charter is about a beautiful education idea that was largely hijacked by conservatives but is now beginning, in small and important ways, to re-emerge.

As envisioned in 1988 by teacher union leader Albert Shanker, the charter schools idea rested on three pillars.  Schools were meant to be laboratories for experimentation from which the traditional public schools could learn.  Charter schools would enable teachers to have greater say in how schools are run.  And because charter schools could locate anywhere, they would bring together children from different racial and economic backgrounds under one roof.

This original vision was backed by considerable research suggesting that giving teachers voice and integrating students would improve academic achievement.  It was also based on the understanding that public schools are supposed to instill democratic values.  By giving teachers a meaningful role in decisions about how schools are run, teachers would model workplace democracy for students.  And by educating children from all walks of life together, integrated charter schools would underline the democratic message that in America, we are all social equals.

Over time, however, many charter schools deviated from the Shanker vision.  They resisted teacher unionization and empowered management rather than teachers.  Instead of integrating students, many charters became even more highly segregated than the regular public schools.  And instead of serving as cooperative partners with district public schools, charters often were promoted as a source of competition with those schools.

The encouraging news is that a growing number of charter schools are fulfilling the exciting original promise.  In the second half of the book, we profile 15 charter schools that embody Shanker’s principles in Washington, D.C., New York, New Orleans, San Diego, Denver, and elsewhere.  Some are taking conscious steps to promote teacher voice through mechanisms such as a union, or a cooperative structure.  Some are taking affirmative steps to create economically and racially diverse student populations.  And some are actively cooperating with traditional public schools and sharing their best educational discoveries.

Halley and I wrote the book to bring attention to the original idea of charters and to shed light on some of the heroic teachers and school leaders who are taking on the exciting challenge of creating innovative schools from scratch.


Q) How did you pick the charter schools that you profiled?

Halley: So much media coverage of charter schools has focused on examples of non-unionized, high-poverty charter schools. We wanted to tell stories about charter schools that don’t fit that mold. We followed leads from journalists, educators, parents, and researchers to choose a set of 15 successful charter schools or networks, serving all grades and located throughout the country, where the school community has been particularly thoughtful about empowering teachers, integrating students, or doing both. The schools in our book aren’t the only charter schools picking up these threads of an alternate vision for charter schools. In fact, we feature some additional charter schools in our Smarter Charter blog series. And we hope that the number of charter schools pursuing teacher voice and student diversity will continue to grow. For example, just this summer, the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools formed to unite more than a dozen charter schools and networks that are committed to enrolling socioeconomically and racially diverse student populations.


Q)  What kinds of innovations did you find that traditional public schools don’t do?

Halley: Some charter schools have developed new approaches to union-management relationships that balance flexibility with teacher protections. Amber Charter School and Green Dot Public Schools, for example, use a “thin” contract that is much shorter than a typical district-union contract. This idea isn’t unique to the charter sector, but it’s something that few charter or district schools are currently pursuing. And it’s an idea that has potential for both sectors to create a more collaborative process of school management. Back when she was president of the UFT, Randi Weingarten suggested that a school-based contract model, like the approach taken at Amber, could be the future for teacher contracts more generally.

Among the diverse charter schools we profiled, a few schools’ efforts to engage a diverse community and encourage interaction across different demographic groups stood out as innovative. At Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, a full-time director of community development makes sure that all families at the school are being included and helps create opportunities for students and parents of different backgrounds to interact. For example, organized play dates group together students who wouldn’t normally spend time together outside of school hours. At E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., all staff members participate in the school’s Race and Equity Education Seminar to give them the tools and awareness to fight institutional racism. Again, some traditional public schools and magnet schools are also doing thoughtful work to engage a diverse community of learners, and more schools of all kinds should follow these examples.


Q) Why open charter schools to give teachers more voice rather than changing the rules in traditional systems to do the same thing?

Rick: We can and should enhance teacher voice in both the charter and traditional public school systems.  Indeed, the main point of charter schools originally was to try new ideas that, if successful, would be transferred to the broader district public school system, where 95 percent of public school students are still educated today.

But Al Shanker believed — and we agree — that it is often difficult to engage in deep innovation within the traditional public school system.  The flexibility that charter schools offer allows schools to experiment so that a small group of teachers and parents can try things that might be inappropriate to implement widely in district schools without a very strong evidential basis.

For example, Minnesota New Country School, a charter school, created a coop model in which teachers have say in every aspect of schooling and share administrative responsibilities.  New Country is engaged in an exciting experiment in workplace democracy that is yielding interesting results.  But it might never have gotten off the ground if it were proposed as part of the traditional public school system.  And it was important to try this idea on a small scale before thinking about its implications for district schools.


Q) I have been in some wonderful charter schools, but I still don’t quite understand why you are arguing that an experiment in a single charter or even a handful could actually provide a strong evidential basis for broader application in a traditional system. I also don’t see that any of the innovations you mention in charters actually originated with charters. Traditional public schools and private schools have been experimenting with these kinds of things in one place or another for a very long time. Ultimately, then, isn’t your argument that charters are necessary because the traditional bureaucracies are too difficult to change?

Rick: We agree that it is not impossible to experiment in traditional public schools.  Going back to the 1970s, Deborah Meier adopted innovations in New York City’s District 4 public schools that helped shape education reform.  But Meier herself decided to open Boston’s Mission Hill Pilot School (a variation on a charter school) in 1995 in order to have the freedom to build a school from the ground up.  Individual charter school might not provide the evidentiary base to prompt broader reform, but collectively, the lessons from charter schools can have an important impact.

Having said that, a major theme in our book is that we want to bring charter schools and district schools much closer together, so that experimentation does translate from one sector to the other.  Because charter schools educate only 5% of public school students, the big payoff comes when good ideas are adopted in traditional public schools.

That’s one reason we want charter schools to be more open to teacher collective bargaining.  Unions are an important avenue for teacher voice, which is critical for its own sake.  But teachers unions can also be a bridge between the charter and traditional public school sectors.  As pro-union charter founder Steve Barr recently told Salon, “You’re not going to change a 100 percent unionized industry with non-unionized labor.”