Giving Compass' Take:

• Sara E. Dahill-Brown shares the history of the charter school movement, highlighting the role of governance to provide context and insight for education reformers. 

• How can education reformers best learn from past successes and failures? What could education reform look like in your state? 

• Learn about the ongoing fight for school choice

On March 31, 1988, fabled teacher unionist Albert Shanker delivered a speech on education reform at the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington, DC. By the end, the moderator was asking Shanker whether his proposals might throw public school districts into a state of anarchy. This was the beginning of the charter school movement.

The origin story of charter schools, described momentarily, is illustrative for several reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly for this discussion, although the charter school movement can trace its early history to Shanker’s moment on a national stage, it was the combined efforts of advocates and policy makers at the state level—to reallocate funding, partner with new authorizers, and define the parameters of autonomy—that ushered charter schools into the world as active and durable policy. In Minnesota, the first state to enact a charter school law, the process of drafting the legislation was driven by state-level actors who fought and negotiated over a period of years before compromising on a plan that earned the support of a majority coalition in the legislature. Since then, states around the country have established charter school sectors, but evidence suggests that they are highly differentiated from one another, heavily shaped by the specific provisions of each state’s law and preexisting circumstances (geographic dispersion of the population between rural and urban areas, diversity and segregation, poverty and inequality, etc.).

The story of the charter school movement is also important because charter schools constitute a substantial, ongoing attempt to remake the governance of public schools. Though the particular critiques have varied with time and place—too partisan or not partisan enough, too democratic or not democratic enough—education reformers throughout American history, like charter advocates today, have cited the existing system of governance as a major reason for why schools fall short of collective aspirations. Charter reform is one of the many cases in which reformers have sought to improve educational quality and opportunity indirectly, through restructuring governance, by manipulating the configuration of power, the process for making decisions, and the mechanisms of accountability. The most public debates about charter schools may center on whether or not they improve academic outcomes, increase racial or economic segregation, or overuse punitive disciplinary practices—all important questions—but state charter laws do not directly speak to those issues. Nonetheless, both charter advocates and vehement opponents believe that transforming how schools are governed can significantly alter educational practices and outcomes. Studying the history of the charter school movement reveals that questions of governance, even when they are not named as such in public discourse, are often central to proposed reforms.

Read the full article about the history of the charter school movement by Sara E. Dahill-Brown at Stanford Social Innovation Review.