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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

The Democratizing Potential of Charter Schools

Through expanded choice, inclusive decision making, and localized accountability, charter schools can be a force that serves multiple publics in education and society.

In September 1995, a public high school—a charter school—opened in the YMCA building on Boston's Huntington Avenue. Now in its fourth year, City on a Hill serves more than 100 9th through 12th grade students of mixed ethnicity and economic status. The school is determined to give its students an excellent public education within an overarching mission of civic education. According to its original charter, City on a Hill is dedicated to rekindling the passion for democracy, the commitment to public service, the respect for hard work, and the hunger for learning in urban youth. This [civic education] mission will inform our curriculum, our pedagogy, our attitudes, and our management structure, and guide our efforts to teach students to be thoughtful and active citizens.Today, this mission is increasingly urgent. Many of our students are unconcerned with what is happening in the world, much less in their city. . . .The habits of tolerance, of thoughtful debate, of community involvement necessary for a democracy to flourish are not innate. They must be taught, exercised, and owned. The time has come for a new City on a Hill, a school which prepares students to understand, practice and embrace the principles and habits of democracy. (Kass & Tolkoff, 1994, p. 1)
City on a Hill's commitment to civic education challenges the notion that charter schools are inherently privatizing forces in public education reform. Educators committed to public school reform might consider whether the alternative conception of the role of public schools offered by charter reform is necessarily a threat to public education. Instead, the charter school movement may bring democratizing reform to traditional notions of public education in the United States.

Blurring the Public/Private Boundary

Since Minnesota enacted the first legislation in 1991, charter school reform has swept the United States. Within seven years, more than half the states passed charter school legislation; many others are considering proposed bills. Charter schools are unequivocally public entities—they must offer a free education to all eligible public school students, and they are funded by public moneys that are often based on a per-pupil expenditure from the state.
But charter schools blur the boundary between public and private schools. First, as schools of choice with distinct missions, they are similar to private schools. Second, charter schools are autonomously managed by groups of parents, teachers, or community members, although they are under contract with a public agency. Finally, they are free from many bureaucratic structures governing public schools at the state and local levels; they make most of their own decisions about budget, personnel, and curriculum.
Charter schools, therefore, bring up questions of balancing public and private interests in education. In large part because of this public/private struggle, the debate about charter schooling has been lively—and often heated and contentious. Many supporters tout these schools as the best hope for public education; equally vocal critics insist that charter schools will bring its demise.
Although their stances are different, proponents and opponents of the movement emphasize the privatizing aspects of charter school reform. Proponents draw heavily on language associated with the marketplace. They refer to students and parents as consumers and clients, play up the attributes of bringing competition into the public educational sphere, and often refer to charter school founders as entrepreneurs. It is precisely this market orientation that concerns skeptics and critics of the charter movement. Alex Molnar, for example, claims that charter schools threaten the common purposes traditionally associated with public education: Charter schools, like private school vouchers and for-profit schools, are built on the illusion that our society can be held together solely by the self-interested pursuit of our individual purposes. Considered in this light, the charter school movement represents a radical rejection not only of the possibility of the common school, but of common purposes outside the school as well. The struggle is not between market-based reforms and the educational status quo. It is about whether the democratic ideal of the common good can survive the onslaught of a market mentality that threatens to turn every human relationship into a commercial transaction. (1996, p. 15)
Molnar's critique illustrates a tendency among naysayers to charter school reform—they frame the entire movement as inherently antidemocratic. To the extent that supporters conceive of charter schools only in terms of a "market mentality," such concerns about the rejection of common purposes are valid. But this position overlooks the possibility that the charter reform movement might have more substance. The very existence of a civic-minded charter school like City on a Hill demonstrates that emphasizing the privatizing, market-oriented aspects of charter reform is overly simplistic. Virtually all debate on the topic neglects, or at best downplays, the democratizing potentials of charter schools.
Educators concerned with preserving the public nature of public education should not summarily write off charter school reform as a move toward privatization. The alternative organizational model of charter schools raises some interesting possibilities for fulfilling public interests. As public institutions, charter schools have the potential to serve as pluralistic forums for democratic deliberation and decision making. Essentially, charter schools represent multiple publics within our civil society where citizens make collective decisions on all aspects of public education. As such, they have the potential to "shift power from bureaucracies to the schools themselves and ultimately to the individuals responsible for them—educators, parents, and students" (Manno, Finn, Bierlein, & Vanourek, 1998, p. 498). This shift from bureaucratic to autonomous governance within civil society brings potential for expanded, inclusive, and localized democratic decision making.

Expanded Choice

Early in this century, Oregon law required all children not only to attend school but also to attend public schools. A group of nuns interested in providing religious education to young people challenged this act. In 1925 the case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, went before the Supreme Court. The justices overturned the law on the grounds that [W]e think it entirely plain that the Act of 1922 unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control. . . . The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations. (268 U.S. 510, 45 S. Ct. 571, 69 L.Ed. 1070 [1925] cited in Yudof, Kirp, & Levin, 1992, p. 12) The Court, in this instance, protected the private interests of families in educating their children and preparing them for "obligations" in addition to those of democratic citizenship. Yet the Court also stressed public interests in the education of all students and authorized public oversight.
The Pierce decision balanced public and private interests by protecting a private sphere of educational choices. This private sphere has been paralleled by a public educational sphere wherein states have attempted to provide a standardized education that is neutral toward a plethora of private ends. More than 70 years later, the pressing question is whether this solution has proved satisfactory. David Tyack contends that public education at the end of the 20th century is both too homogeneous and too heterogeneous. Public education is too homogeneous in that schools teach similar curriculums in similar ways with similar textbooks, yet too heterogeneous in that educational resources and the quality of schooling vary greatly from district to district and from school to school (Tyack, 1992, p. 16). Both the homogeneity and the heterogeneity suggest that the present organizational structure of education is not "equally in the interests of all."
Many families with children in the public schools must contend with pressures of assimilation toward mainstream norms as they attempt to transmit their cultural or religious values. To escape these pressures, or to be ensured a certain quality of education, some families choose private education. But only those who can afford private school tuition can use this option. Thus, families whose values are not represented in the mainstream culture and families with low to middle incomes are at a disadvantage in the present structure of public education.
Charter schools offer an alternative organizational structure for balancing these public and private interests in education. For instance, some Boston families chose to enter City on a Hill's admissions lottery to avoid sending their child to an existing high school that had lost its accreditation. In a sense, these families were desperate to exercise any form of choice, even lottery-based admission to a new school with no track record, to sidestep a failing public school.
But in addition to simply increasing the number of public school choices for families, charter schools expand the types of choices. They are one model of what Tyack refers to as "public schools of choice [where] like-minded parents and public educators could together create schools . . . within public education that seek to honor different ideals of character . . . [and] different ethical outlooks" (Tyack, 1992, pp. 15–16).
Because they are "privately" organized according to specific educational missions, charter schools broaden the opportunities for transmitting particularistic values. At the same time, because they are public and accessible to all families, they have the potential to equalize opportunities for quality schooling within public education. Thus, charter schools may address negative aspects of both heterogeneity and homogeneity in the present system.

Inclusive Decision Making

Some skeptics have expressed concern that the governance of charter schools "appear[s] to restrict free public deliberation about matters of mutual concern" (Voke, 1998). One could argue, however, that charter schools are not excluding the public from decision making. Rather, their creation is functioning to include previously excluded constituencies in decision-making structures. According to the traditional, bureaucratic model of public school governance, the bulk of decision making is under the purview of elected officials, administrators, and union representatives. With charter schools, groups of parents, teachers, and community members begin and subsequently govern the schools. City on a Hill, for example, was founded by two teachers and considers itself one of only a few teacher-driven charter schools. Thus, previously excluded groups, who are not public officials, but simply citizens,nor educational bureaucrats, but nevertheless professionals, are often included in the decision-making structures and processes of charter schools.

Localized Accountability

Another issue raised by the autonomy of charter schools is accountability to the public. To the extent that each charter school is independent from direct administrative oversight, how can the school be held accountable for what and how much students learn?
Charter school advocates insist that accountability is ensured in at least two ways. First, parental choice dictates that unsuccessful schools will be unable to maintain a student population; parents will simply choose to send their children to another school. Second, the sponsoring agency can revoke or refuse to renew the charter of a nonperforming school.
But charters are accountable to public interests in another way. As public institutions, charters are not autonomous from public oversight. Instead, charters are autonomous publics where accountability is localized rather than bureaucratized. Charter schools should be thought of as public institutions subject to norms of democratic governance, just as traditional school districts are subject to such norms. In the latter case, these norms generally take the form of elected or appointed school boards; in the case of charter schools, these norms are more usefully thought of in terms of face-to-face deliberations among a group of citizens who have come together to pursue educational issues of common concern.

Unresolved Concerns

The emphasis on the democratizing aspects of expanded choice, inclusive decision making, and localized accountability highlights some overlooked potentials within the charter school reform movement. These potentials may not be realized, however.
Unlike City on a Hill, the vast majority of charter schools are not concerned primarily with civic education. Nor will all, or even most, charter schools be more democratic than their neighboring traditional public schools. In fact, some areas for concern surround potentially antidemocratic aspects of charter schools. Expanded choice among distinct schools may serve to segregate or factionalize the public school population. Decision making among schools may be inclusive of frequently —alized groups. But decision making within schools will not necessarily be inclusive. A teacher-driven school like City on a Hill, for example, may give more weight to the perspectives of teachers than to those of parents. And in terms of localized accountability, lines of authority between autonomous schools and the state or sponsoring agency are often unclear. Each of these issues calls for careful attention and lively debate about the role that charter schools should play in public education.

Potential and Promise

Will charter schools serve our students well? Will they serve primarily as a privatizing or as a democratizing force in public education reform? As more schools are created and as more conclusive results become available, we must keep in mind the democratizing potentials of charter school reform.
Charters bring conversations about the proper role, scope, and purposes of public education out of the offices of policy wonks and into our kitchens as parents discuss what type of school their children should attend. Charters bring policy making out of state legislatures and into neighborhood centers where community members debate the appropriateness of a particular charter school for their city or town. And charters bring professional discussions about how best to teach children out of the administrative buildings of school districts and into our school hallways as teachers think about where their talents and energies would be best devoted and sometimes choose to bring their dreams to life in a school of their own.
The often overlooked potential of charter schools is not first and foremost a concern with students' test scores, but it is the possibility of vibrant political debate and action surrounding the proper role and function of the public schools that we all share. To the extent that charters spark and sustain such debate, they will have achieved one measure of success.

Kass, S., & Tolkoff, A. C. (1994). City on a Hill charter school application. [Submitted to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education.] Boston.

Manno, B. V., Finn, C. E., Bierlein, L. A., & Vanourek, G. (1998). How charter schools are different: Lessons and implications from a national study. Phi Delta Kappan, 79(7), 489–498.

Molnar, A. (1996). Charter schools: The smiling face of disinvestment. Educational Leadership, 54(2), 9–15.

Tyack, D. (1992). Can we build a system of choice that is not just a "sorting machine" or a market-based "free-for-all"? Equity and Choice, 9(1), 13–17.

Voke, H. M. (1998, March). Charter schools: Particularistic, pluralistic, and participatory? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, Boston.

Yudof, M. G., Kirp, D. L., & Levin, B. (1992). Educational policy and the law (3rd ed.). St. Paul, MN: West.

Stacy Smith has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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