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The US charter school movement should learn from England’s academy system

As charter schools celebrate 25 years as part of the U.S. public education system, there has been a dramatic shift in the public debate about their role. Until recently, most discussion has centered around the horse race question of how well students in charters perform in comparison to peers in traditional public schools. But growing attention is now being paid to questions of whether and how to control the growth of charter schools so that they best serve the interests of all students. For example, the NAACP recently called for a moratorium on new charters in communities with large numbers of African Americans, while voters in Massachusetts are now were asked to vote on Tuesday, November 8 on a ballot initiative to remove the cap on the number of charter schools in that state.

Charter schools originated as means of introducing educational innovation while remaining on the fringes of local school systems. As their numbers have grown, however, charters have moved from the fringes to being major players in the public school landscape in many cities. This movement raises important policy questions about how charters and traditional public schools can coexist to ensure the best education for students in the United States.

One country where this debate is in full swing is England, where the current Conservative government in March, 2016, published a white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, laying out its intention to turn all 20,000 primary and secondary schools into academies, which is their equivalent of charters, by 2022. Under the plan, academies would receive funding directly from the national Department for Education, thereby sharply reducing the role of the local authorities that have traditionally been responsible for most of the publicly funded schools.

We recently traveled to England to learn what we could about the plan. We interviewed key stakeholders in London including the officials at the Department for Education, researchers, headteachers (i.e., school principals) and others. In our new Brown Center Policy Brief, we describe five lessons the U.S. can learn from England, which we briefly discuss here.


  1. The first lesson regards the difficult task of successfully running a system in which two sets of schools operate side by side but function under different rules with respect to matters such as school admissions and teacher policies. By 2016, two thirds of all secondary schools in England were academies as were many primary schools. The Conservative government concluded that such a dual system was not sustainable and used this as an argument for moving toward an all-academy system. As of now, only a few school districts in the U.S. are dominated by charter schools. Yet, as charter schools become more prevalent, policymakers here will have to choose between strengthening the capacity of traditional governance structures to accommodate both traditional public schools and charters or promoting the expansion of the charter sector. In addressing this matter, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to look to England for lessons learned.


  1. By 2016, English policymakers realized that relying on school autonomy, especially in the case of small primary schools, would never work as a strategy for improving education. Their solution was to encourage academies to join Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), which are chains of academies that can provide services like financial expertise and professional development that were previously offered by local authorities. The success rates of MATs is mixed at best, especially with regard to disadvantaged students. We note that free-standing charter schools in the U.S. face many of the same challenges as autonomous academies in England and that while some charter management organizations—our equivalent of MATs—have the resources and capacity to succeed, many others do not. As a result, we point to improving local school districts as the relevant lesson in this instance, rather than turning to Charter Management Organizations to manage an expanding set of charter schools.


  1. A third lesson relates to England’s Regional School Commissioners (RSCs), which, given the weakened condition of local authorities, were created as a necessary means of governing 20,000 schools. Not surprisingly, controversy has arisen regarding the RSCs’ role. As the number of charter schools continues to proliferate in the U.S, pressure will inevitably build to devise new bureaucratic structures to oversee them, especially those that are struggling. Possibilities include putting charters under the management of local school districts or emulating RSCs in England by establishing regional offices throughout states. Perhaps the closest existing analogies in the U.S. are new state-managed recovery districts such as the Achievement School District in Tennessee, which are established to bring together groups of struggling schools with little geographical proximity to each other. Thus far, however, there is little or no evidence that the Tennessee district has been successful. It actually appears to have been less successful than an alternative Tennessee strategy of setting up groups of struggling charter schools operated by the local school districts.


  1. The reduction of local control inherent in academization has created situations in which decisions affecting local schools are now made by officials who lack working knowledge of challenges facing local communities. In addition, it has left citizens without local authorities to whom they can direct comments or complaints. Likewise, in the U.S, charter schools and charter chains are not necessarily in tune with community needs and preferences. It is significant that in post-Katrina New Orleans the state is now “returning” some authority to the democratically elected local school board. Local communities know what issues they are facing, and the lesson from England is that local input is essential for the sustainability of an effective system.


  1. A final lesson questions the very nature of the plan to convert all schools to academies. In interviews in England when we asked about the plan, we heard words and phrases like “predictable,” “reckless,” “a disaster waiting to happen,” and “risky.” Critics have questioned the wisdom of replacing a known, if imperfect, system with an entirely new and untried one. A recent report by the Sutton Trust, a foundation focused on improving social mobility through education, concluded that “there is no reason to believe that a fully academized system will be any better than the current one.” As some U.S. policymakers continue to advocate for the proliferation of charter schools, the same warning applies. It may well be better to look for ways to improve schools than to throw away our long-established system of governance for the sake of an untested idea.

As the charter school movement becomes ever more present in today’s education policy debates, U.S. policymakers would be wise to take heed of the lessons learned from England and what might happen if they do not.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published by Brookings on November 7, 2016. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.

Here is a longer version of the article.

Helen Ladd

Helen Ladd is the Susan B. King professor of public policy and professor of economics at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Most of her current research focuses on education policy. She is particularly interested in various aspects of school accountability, education finance, teacher labor markets, and school choice.

Edward B. Fiske

Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of the New York Times, writes the Fiske Guide to Colleges.