All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1995

A Report Card on Charter Schools

Charter Schools Bring Only Cosmetic Changes to Public Education

At the time this article was published, Candace Allen (now Candace Smith) was a social studies and economics teacher at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences, a Colorado charter school.

A year ago I resigned from teaching in a local high school to accept a position at a new charter school. Charter schools seemed to promise the greatest chance of fostering market reform within public education. I believed that if given the power, a few very dedicated and talented teachers and a small administrative staff could bring about innovative educational changes and create an outstanding school.

Though I have never worked with a more dedicated group of well-intentioned people, I have become skeptical that charter schools can bring systemic change to public education. While I do not claim the ability to predict the outcome of any particular charter school, I now realize that at best only marginal change within public education is possible through charter schools.

A charter school is defined as a semi-autonomous, publicly funded school operated by a group of parents, teachers, and/or community members under a charter with a local school district board of education and/or an outside group, such as a university. At present, 12 states have passed many variations of charter-school legislation, some granting more autonomy than others. Each charter sets forth the school’s goals and philosophy, the basic curricular structure, governance, and operational procedure, and is intended to ensure less bureaucratic tethering to state and federal regulations.

Proponents of charter schools claim that the power base of schools must shift from government to parents as consumers of their children’s education. Comparing charter schools to private schools as examples of consumer choice, advocates hope that democratically administered, site-based charter schools can offer greater choice in learning environments with little outside interference. Voluntary enrollment should be designed to attract “customers,” thus introducing competition into the system.

On the surface, then, the vocabulary of the market (customers, autonomy, competition, choice) draws those who view state education as needing reform and who favor market allocation of educational resources. But just because a list of market vocabulary words can be applied to charter schools doesn’t mean that the grammar and syntax of the market are present and operational. I have discovered in my short charter-school career that many of the basic limitations of regular public schools are also inherent in charter schools.

The Attitude of Compliance

Most people can’t imagine what “school” would be like if it weren’t public. Acceptance of “the way things are” reflects a pervasive attitude of compliance in our state-run educational system. Just as this attitude has plagued market-reform efforts in former Communist countries, so it hampers educational reform efforts in the United States. Dismantling our bureaucratic system of education will be difficult because the power structure has been in place for so long.

The attitude of compliance, subtle and covert, has created passivity among parents in the way they view their role in change. The gradual evolution of bureaucratized educational practices in the United States has fostered the abdication of the family’s sense of responsibility to educate its own and has led to the general dependence on the state as the primary educational care-giver.

In a recent conversation with a fifth-grade parent at my school, I discovered that her daughter’s teacher was reluctant to allow the girl to be moved into a higher math class because she had missed too much school. Even though the youngster had an “A” recorded in math, and even though the parent and the student wanted a more challenging math curriculum, the parent hadn’t considered that she could question an “educational expert.” When I asked what she thought her role in the situation was, she paused and stumbled over the words, “I hadn’t realized I had a role.”

Nuances of this submissive stance appear in one of the major admission requirements of our charter school. Parents must show that they are ready for already defined responsibility by signing an agreement supporting homework policies of all teachers, a minimum 18-hour school volunteer service, and other school-determined policies. In other words, if parents want their students in our school, they are expected to sign an agreement of compliance. Being forced into this position ultimately leaves parents resistant or defensive. What’s equally devastating is that parents next year will be expected to “police their own” by deciding on a “policy of consequence” for parents who do not live up to their agreements.

Teacher Knows Best

Just as the attitude of compliance has created passivity in the way parents view change, so it has created a certain arrogance on the part of teachers (and administrators), especially in their expectations of parents. In a discussion at a faculty meeting, several of the teachers were confused by the apparent lack of interest by parents to serve the 18 pledged volunteer hours. Two teachers wondered if we could “force them to do what they are supposed to do for us.”

A few weeks ago, I spoke with one of our elementary teachers who had just finished coordinating the school’s book fair. I asked her if parents had been involved. She said that she had phoned almost all of the parents in her class, but that they had either already contributed their mandatory service hours or they were too busy to do so now. She convinced one parent to work for part of a day, but that parent said that she preferred to volunteer for her other child’s Head Start school (a federally funded preschool) because she earned “volunteer bucks,” redeemable at a local home supplies warehouse. If she were compelled to volunteer, she preferred tangible reward. Like many parents, this mother saw no relationship between doing mandatory volunteer work and taking an active role in her child’s education. The teacher involved was disgusted that, once again, parents were letting the school down. I realized that no one has seriously challenged the paradigm that those who “know best” for parents, children, and for schools are the members of the educational bureaucracy.

The pervasive but subtle attitudes regarding role expectations permeate almost everyone’s assumptions about reform. These attitudes play out in predictable ways in my charter school, just as they do in regular public schools; parents and students get what they get and teachers are surprised that they aren’t happier about it than they are.

Often unrecognized, these attitudes mask their causes, which are the constraints that hold charter schools firmly in the government-controlled education bureaucracy. These constraints involve (1) the source of charter school funding, (2) regulations inherent in government control, and (3) the lack of market accountability.


The first bureaucratic constraint pertains to the funding of public and charter schools. Through taxes, parents and non-parents alike pour money into government coffers, and that money is pooled into funds not specifically earmarked for education. No one can say how much education costs any given taxpayer, but generally the taxpayer knows that her dollars will not count as votes in the way her child is educated. State funding perpetuates the compliant parental attitude. Not surprisingly, parents aren’t as closely involved in their children’s education as they most likely would be if their dollars went directly into a specific school of choice rather than into taxes, and if, because of that direct payment, they could assume more responsibility as customers. Surely, as responsible customers and parents, they would be more than homework monitors, overseers of their children’s attendance, or school volunteers.

Even if a family knew what it was paying for education, it is too costly at the margin to protest a policy or philosophy of a school. If one family or a small group of parents came into my school claiming that they didn’t want their children to be a part of, nor did they want to pay for, “multi-age,” “interdisciplinary,” and “untracked” classes, they would be pacified and sent away with a promise that a multi-age, interdisciplinary, and untracked curriculum is beneficial to their children. Parents do not demand nor expect customer sovereignty, and ultimately leave the major decisions to the educational bureaucracy.


The second major constraint of public/charter schools relates to these funding-source problems. Because funding comes from the state, all public and charter schools are regulated by various levels of government, though charter schools may apply for waivers from certain types of regulations. For example, non-certified people are allowed to teach some classes in my charter school. But the heavy-handed state regulations remain. For example, in Colorado all public schools are required to apply the state curriculum standards, and soon will need to meet specified requirements in the assessment of those standards.

Probably the most binding regulation is that of universal mandatory education for all students aged 16 and under. This is the ultimate sanction for government knowing what is best. It means that parents have little say in what “school” is going to mean, nor do they get to decide how much or what kind is enough or appropriate for their own children. In practical terms, what compulsory education means is that many kids are in school who do not want to be. This necessarily affects educational programs negatively because those forced to go to school obstruct the learning of those students who do want to perform.

These two limitations have severely hindered teachers in the upper grades at our school who held high expectations and grand plans to deliver our seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade students a quality education. Many parents brought children who previously had performed poorly to our school with the hope that they would be cured of their non-performance. Those very students have demonstrated clearly that they can continue their non-performance in their new setting, and can interfere with the education of those who want to be there. Bound to the idea that school as we know it must be administered to students in measured doses makes parents, teachers, and students unable to imagine what a true market in education could be like.

Not only do a myriad of other types of regulations still bind charter schools tightly to the category of “public schools,” but also local micromanagement by school boards creates even more discretionary power for those boards as public education trustees. In another city in Colorado, a new charter school was warned by the school board that its start-up problems had to be corrected in specific ways within 30 days or its charter would be revoked. Rather than allowing parental or even school discretion in determining the seriousness of the problems (one of which was that no textbooks were being used), the particular school board intervened and imposed an arbitrary solution in the matter. Efforts to create market incentives through deregulation could only be successful if sources of funding were private rather than public.


The third constraint of public/charter schools is that of the lack of accountability. All tenured teachers and the dean at my school are guaranteed same-salaried jobs back in the regular system should any of us decide to return. No job security risk is involved, nor do we have to compete to retain a certain income. Though we all face pressure to be innovative, our jobs do not depend on whether the charter school succeeds or fails. Other than being scolded for “being too much in the box of the old ways,” no real penalty exists if results are not produced. The risks associated with failure are present only in the marketplace.

Also, because merit pay is viewed by teachers as disharmonious, monetary incentives offered for innovative behavior are deemed inappropriate. Not only did the majority of the faculty at my charter school vote to make our professional evaluations as “threat free” as possible, they also plan to implement self-designed, personalized evaluations to “equalize” faculty, hoping to promote an environment of trust and respect. Ironically, though we are not tied to a union contract at the charter school and most teachers have given up union membership, the tendency to protect our own interests is just as strong as it is in those who protect their interests by being union members. Teachers who are having obvious difficulty performing are protected by lengthy procedures for dismissal. We tend to see ourselves, rather than parents and students, as the rightful decision-makers in employment decisions.

A second accountability issue relates to the unlikely possibility that school district administration will allow charter schools to fail if these schools have been publicly endorsed. Because our school district and the university (our charter holder) have forged an official “alliance,” pledging support for K-16 education, both benefit by any claim to success we make. Thus, it is in both the university’s and the district’s interests to prevent failure, or the public admission of it.

However, assuming that parents decide to “vote with their feet” and leave a charter school, the effects will be different than if education were bought and sold in the marketplace. In the market, failure is necessary for resource allocation. But if it occurs in the public education arena, resources will be rechanneled right back into the bureaucracy from which it was intended to break free. To make matters worse, teachers’ unions will politicize the failure as a vote in favor of “regular” public schools.

A third accountability problem stems from the belief in teacher empowerment. In our school, teachers are jacks-of-all-trades, all with consensual say, taking on such administrative tasks as scheduling, writing curriculum, and designing all policies. Empowerment has been the goal of all of us for years. “Just free us from the administrative stranglehold and we will be able to make a school run right!” But I have learned that the empowerment philosophy assumes that well-meaning teachers can manage a school resourcefully, and at the same time teach effectively. It assumes that teacher creativity should be unharnessed without administrative restraint. Because public educators don’t face the real world threat of possible failure and loss of employment, their creative and entrepreneurial efforts are not bound to the rules of the marketplace. When teachers are empowered, what can stop a bad idea?

Charter schools, like their sister public schools, will not break education open to market forces. But as more and more private groups find ways to crack open the educational monopoly to offer educational substitutes, a new group of schools will enter the scene. Schools that operate for profit will begin to offer new products and services that may differ dramatically from those of public and non-profit schools. In other words, as new schools for profit enter the picture, with some failing and some succeeding, new methods of educating children will emerge. The successful schools may or may not be multi-aged, interdisciplinary, standards-based, or whatever present educational fad dominates. The faculty may or may not be consensually involved in site-based decision-making, and may or may not be restricted to classroom teaching only. It all will depend—on the market.

For the time being, many charter schools will emerge, vowing to make great improvements in public education. And just as pockets of program success and outstanding individual teachers can be found within many public schools, so they will be found in many charter schools. Time will tell whether the charter school in which I teach will make marginal improvements in our educational community; certainly I hope that it does. Charter schools will temporarily cast the appearance of consumer choice, but it must be remembered that they are publicly financed, which guarantees burdensome regulation. This prevents market feedback, including reward for entrepreneurial achievement, or failure and loss for unworkable ideas and poor management. Real competition with public education is yet to come, but in the meantime, the cosmetic change currently on display at charter schools will be passed off as systemic change.

  • Ms. Allen is a teacher-on-special-assignment in the Education Alliance of Pueblo, Colorado.