President's Corner

Charter Schools, What Rules Really Matter?


As teen-agers, my children told my wife Sheila and me we were the only parents who insisted their children comply with some rules. They suggested if only we were as enlightened as their friends’ parents were, they could grow up unfettered to be wonderful people. But because we were stifling them with explicit limits on their behavior, they insisted this never would occur.

In a sense, our children wanted a charter. They wanted us to require them to become good people but to let them do it in whatever way they deemed effective. They were willing to be held accountable for the end result, but they wanted to choose how to achieve that outcome.

Charter school proponents make similar arguments. They maintain that if they were allowed to "do it our way," the children who attend charter schools would learn better than children who attend schools burdened by myriad rules and regulations.

This argument has been attractive enough to spawn the establishment of hundreds of charter schools nationwide. In fact, enough of these schools are now in operation for us to answer the obvious question: Do children in charter schools learn better than children who attend regular public schools?

In some cases, the answer seems to be that charter school students do learn better than their counterparts. In other cases, they seem to learn the same or less. Where does that leave us?

We need answers to these crucial questions:

  • What distinguishes effective charter schools from those that are not effective?

  • Do effective charter schools share characteristics because the schools are freed from externally imposed rules and, if so, which rules prevent these key characteristics from developing?

  • Are there externally imposed rules that foster the development of effective charter schools?

    We need to answer these questions before we can conclude that charter schools should be a permanent part of our nation’s public education system. If outside rules inhibit schools from serving students effectively, then all schools should be freed from these rules. If certain regulations enhance the operation of high-performing schools, no school should be exempt from them.

    We cannot avoid confronting these issues. The need to elevate our school systems is so great we must ensure that every reform strategy is tested. Strategies found wanting should be discarded.

    If charter schools do not help student achievement, they are at best neutral factors in the effort to transform public education.

    The children, parents and staff connected with charter schools may be pleased with their situations. If those schools, however, do not foster a higher level of learning, a greater sense of civic virtue and a heightened awareness of what it means to live successfully as human beings, the expenditure of public funds on charter schools cannot be justified no matter how many other reasons charter school proponents have for wanting charters.

    On the other hand, I believe that if we address the effectiveness of charter schools comprehensively and forthrightly, we will learn a great deal about how our public schools should be governed.

    The argument that pits the polar extremes of rules versus no rules against each other is a useless one. The key to success, instead, is to regulate appropriately so that both the security and the freedom necessary for individuality and creativity can flourish.