Charter movement leaders: We ‘were naïve’

Chester E. Finn Jr. and Bruno V. Manno have been two of the most faithful cheerleaders for America’s charter school experiment since it started 24 years ago. But in a recent article for National Affairs, they look critically at where the movement has gone wrong.

“It’s a little embarrassing to acknowledge,” they write, “with the benefit of hindsight, that putting a charter sign on a school building actually reveals surprisingly little other than that it’s a ‘school of choice’ with some freedom to be different. Early advocates, ourselves included, were naive about some key things.”

Charter boosters, they admit, didn’t pay enough attention to issues of authorizing and governance of the schools. They pushed quantity, wrongly assuming a free market would lead to high quality. They “wanted the infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism that accompany the profit motive, but … didn’t take seriously enough the risk of profiteering.”

Finn is president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school-reform organization that authorizes charter schools in Ohio, and was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. Manno is a senior adviser with the Walton Family Foundation, which spends over $200 million a year on education initiatives, much of it to promote school choice and support charter schools.

Their article brings to mind a recent piece in the Indiana Policy Review by Timothy P. Ehrgott, a charter-school pioneer who wrote that charter schools haven’t fulfilled their promise. But while Ehrgott seemed almost ready to pull the plug, Finn and Manno want to double down on the bet – as long as charter supporters learn from their mistakes.

Charter schools, they write, have five positive attributes that position them for success: They have strong public support (even though much of the public doesn’t know what charter schools are); many of them do well in school rankings; they largely serve poor and minority students; they are popular, as shown by long waiting lists; and they play a big role in some cities, like New Orleans.

“Turning to academic performance, however, our praise must be more muted, as the charter track record is, in a word, mixed,” Finn and Manno write. “Some of the country’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of the worst.” Continue reading