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Charter schools: Educational competition that is here to stay

After EdNC published Douglas Price’s article, “Three ideas for addressing key charter schools problems,” many of my friends in the school choice movement were taken aback. Here was the North Carolina charter school teacher of the year arguing that charter schools should disassociate with the private school choice movement, embrace the restoration of a cap on the number of charter schools, and align themselves with school district goals.

From its inception, however, the beauty of the charter school movement is that it welcomes divergent ideas. The earliest charter school proponents believed that charters could address specific shortcomings of school district governance, and Mr. Price appears to be a devotee of this tradition. But education reformers and elected officials who championed the charter school concept starting in the late 1980s sought something more revolutionary — a system of public schools that would compete directly with school districts, and through that competition, would improve student achievement and parental satisfaction.

That’s the model that is delivering opportunity to kids and empowerment to parents — something Mr. Price’s proposed rollback would curtail.

The genesis of the charter school concept

Questions about the scope and purpose of charter school education are as old as the concept itself. While 19th-century educators experimented with models of schooling that resemble charter schools, historians credit Ray Budde of the University of Massachusetts as the founder of the modern charter concept. Budde published “Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts” in 1974, which proposed a 10-year plan designed to restructure existing school districts. The article received little notice, but it signaled the beginning of an era when education reformers began to rethink models of public school governance that had changed little since the early 20th century.

In his March 1988 speech before the National Press Club, American Federation for Teachers President Albert Shanker envisioned a different type of restructuring — a system that would allow a group of enterprising public school teachers to create an autonomous school of choice within an existing public school. Inspired by the moniker created by Budde, Shanker adopted the term “charter school” in an op-ed published in the New York Times a few months later.

Later that year, elected officials and policy experts in Minnesota took Budde and Shanker’s ideas and created a statutory and regulatory framework for a type of school that operated independently from school districts. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to approve charter school legislation. The framework created by Minnesota state Senator Ember Reichgott Junge and a group of bipartisan colleagues would form the basis for the bill passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1996. In fact, the six purposes of charter schools outlined in the original 1996 legislation are very similar to the six listed in the 1991 Minnesota bill.

As Junge explained in her superb account of the fight for charter schools in Minnesota, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, the idea that charter schools would “harness choice and competition to improve our public schools” originated from the Minnesota charter school experience. Through the work of Minnesota education reformer Ted Kolderie, the idea became central to President Bill Clinton’s education agenda. In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools nationwide and declared, “Their right to choose will foster competition and innovation that can make public schools better.” A day after the speech, the North Carolina State Board of Education granted charters to nine schools, the first cohort approved under the 1996 law.

Charter schools come to North Carolina

Mr. Price questions the claim that charter schools exist to foster competition between school systems and contends that such an idea was not evident in North Carolina’s 1996 charter school law. Both before and after passage of charter school legislation, it appeared to have been common knowledge among legislators, commentators, and the media that passage of the charter school law was meant to provide competitive pressure on district schools. 

A May 12, 1995 Associated Press article noted one early North Carolina charter school proposal: “The Senate approved an experiment in school competition by allowing schools to operate under contracts, or charters, which describe student achievement goals and other operating details.” The headline of a June 23, 1996 Associated Press article announcing the passage of North Carolina’s charter school law read: “New type of school created: Legislature’s goal with charter schools is to spark competition.” In a March 25, 1998 op-ed titled “New charter schools offering competition,” former John Locke Foundation president John Hood observed, “It’s amazing what a little competition can do.”

Those who opposed passage of the charter law did so fearing that such competition would harm school districts that had encountered minimal competition in the past, and they sought to mitigate the damage by championing a robust regulatory regime. The 100-school cap on charters established in the 1996 legislation was, in part, borne out of the fear that school districts would be forced to compete with nearby charter schools. Certainly, there was no empirical evidence that an absolute, 100-school cap was (or is) appropriate to meet the educational needs of North Carolina children. Instead, proponents of the cap and other regulatory measures believed that authorizing an average of one charter school per North Carolina county would insulate school districts from competition.

But even some charter skeptics believed that the cap would be a temporary measure. In 2000, then-state Senator Beverly Perdue told the Associated Press that the cap was put into place for the first three years to allow the state legislature to evaluate the initial cohort of schools that had received charters. She remarked, “it’s very likely the cap will be raised,” after lawmakers received a progress report that was to be released that year.

Perdue concluded, “Good stewardship of the tax dollar as you do a test program is to wait until the results are in before you decide whether to expand.” Yet, despite impressive results, strong parental demand, and a 2007 recommendation by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Charter Schools to increase the cap on charter schools by up to six annually, the cap would not be raised until the Republican legislative majority eliminated the cap in 2011.

The future of charter schools in North Carolina

Thanks to the increasing availability of options and the decisions of parents, North Carolinians have witnessed unprecedented charter school growth. Enrollment in North Carolina has increased more than 200 percent in the past 10 years. Over 109,000 children attend one of the state’s 182 brick-and-mortar charter schools and two virtual charter schools.

Mr. Price is part of a new generation of educators that are asking important questions about this shifting educational landscape. By doing so, they are part of the most important competition of all — the competition of ideas about the ways that charter schools may improve public schooling in an educational environment increasingly dependent on parental choice.

Editor’s note: These comments are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily express the position of the John Locke Foundation.

Dr. Terry Stoops

Dr. Terry Stoops is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.