A dozen years ago the charter school movement found me when I volunteered my time as a member of the governing board of the MATCH Charter High School in Boston. American charter schools are
taxpayer funded public schools that are independently managed, akin to the free schools that are taking root in England now. I’d been a civil rights activist, having headed the civil rights
enforcement agency for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, when I became captivated by the promise that charter schools held to redress the achievement gap between black and white students.
While in London recently to attend the ‘Schools Revolution’ conference sponsored by this magazine, I was struck by parallels between the travails that free schools face and those charter schools
have endured. Here are a few observations.
1) Parental choice, properly harnessed, is a driver for change and better schools
For the three years that I headed the Charter School Office for the New York City Department of Education under Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the number of charter schools more than doubled from
66 to 125.
This growth was fuelled by parental demand: for every vacant charter school seat there are at least 5 applicants. By law, scarce seats are awarded by a lottery. Few things demonstrate parental
demand for better schools as vividly as those bittersweet gatherings where the fate of thousands of children is determined; scenes recently rendered on screen in the documentary film "Waiting
Parental demand, it turns out, is an important mechanism for signalling which schools are not performing well and should be overhauled or even closed. Chancellor Klein put into practice a radical
new approach to government provision of education: not as a monopolist, which is the sole provider of schooling, but as a portfolio manager which assembles a diverse array of options for parents to
choose from. Klein’s aversion to monopolies should not be surprising, given his previous role as the head of the US Justice Department’s anti-trust division, which led efforts to break up Microsoft
and other corporate behemoths.
In 1984, while I was a college student, I lived in London and had an internship for a Tory MP. I recently came across some old things I’d saved from that time, including the 1983 Conservative
Manifesto. I was interested to note that its education philosophy said that “giving parents more power is one of the most effective ways of raising educational standards. We shall continue to
seek ways of widening parental choice and influence over their children’s schooling." Parental choice is both an end in itself and a powerful lever for school improvement.
2) Given effective schools, children from poorer communities can succeed academically
The vast majority of the students enrolled in New York City’s charter schools are African-American or Hispanic. They are drawn from families living in poverty. The schools with the longest waiting
lists are those operated by the superstar educational entrepreneurs at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) or the Uncommon Schools network.
They are showing what their idealistic founders call "proof points": urban minority students who can achieve at levels comparable to their white suburban counterparts. In other words, low
academic achievement is not the children’s fault, it is not inherent in their impoverished family circumstances; it is something that can be altered with the right schools.
3) Those that benefit from the status-quo will be fierce in defending it
My most vivid memories as an official come from the public meetings I facilitated for charter schools. Late nights in Brooklyn spent hearing charter school teachers being demonized as ‘evil’ and
personally attacked in the most vicious terms.
Or meetings in Harlem that came close to breaking into a melee when charter school parents turned out to defend their school against those bent on destroying it. Many of those raised voices in
opposition came from teachers and their unions.
I was reminded of all this recently listening to a young teacher who is part of a group that is seeking to open a free school outside London. He put a brave face on it, but he was clearly dejected
by the intense opposition that he was facing from local vested interests whose opposition that was likely to delay the school’s opening. Those who are getting into the work of fundamentally
reforming education should expect intense opposition and not take it to heart. Instead, they should meet it with the organized voice of parents who are seeking better schools for their children.
Here in the US, the former schools chief of Washington DC, Michelle Rhee, is doing just that. Earlier this year she announced the launch of "Students First" an organization dedicated to
mobilizing a million supporters behind education reform efforts across the United States. It is not surprising that the NUT’s General Secretary, Christine Blower, has said, "The Government’s
commitment to ‘free schools’ will create chaos at local level." Blower is just representing the interests of her members, opposing anything that might threaten their livelihoods or privileges.
Where will the countervailing political force come from to organize the interests of British parents and provide air cover to the courageous efforts of Michael Gove and other reformers?
4) Developing suitable premises is a challenge: be adaptive and recognize the spill-over effects
The first charter school at which I volunteered, the MATCH Charter School, started its existence in the classrooms of a local synagogue that were used on the weekends for the religious instruction
of the congregants. Once it was up and running, the school later moved into a 100 year old building that was built as a show room for the Ford Motor Company. The City on a Hill Charter School,
where I served as Executive Director, existed for many years in the second floor of the local YMCA. Another school that I assisted, Coney Island Prep, opened up in the community centre of a public
housing complex in New York’s Coney Island neighbourhood. "Home sweet home, be it ever so humble" has been the ethos of these schools and has neither diminished their students’ ability to
achieve nor the public demand for places at them. Education entrepreneurs and local authorities in England would benefit from a similarly flexible approach to premises in which their new free
schools can operate.
Alternatively, where large-scale investment can be made, new school construction can be a powerful force for urban re-vitalization. Over dinner recently with some British friends from the
construction company Skanska, they talked excitedly about what they believe their new academy school building will mean for families in Bristol. I told them about a $100m project that Geoff Canada
and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) are undertaking to house one of its charter schools. The funding for the project comes from a public-private partnership, whereby Mr. Canada and HCZ raise a
third of the budget from philanthropy ($20m of which was pledged by Goldman Sachs last year) and the City of New York contributes the remainder. This investment in Harlem, which broke ground this
month, will not only benefit the 1,000 mostly low-income children who attend the school every day, but has the potential to induce families to stay in the neighbourhood knowing that they have a
safe and effective school to which they can send their child.
5) Newly formed schools can be laboratories of innovation
Schools that are managed independently of government authorities, like charter schools, free schools, or even the previous government’s academies, are more likely to be innovative in devising
effective new educational programs. When you walk into the classrooms of the New York Centre for Autism Charter School, for instance, you know you are seeing something special. Focused,
personalized instruction is helping profoundly autistic children to develop the social skills they need to make their way in the world. What can this new school’s approach tell others about
educating autistic children?
I am helping to launch the Great Oaks Charter School (‘Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow’, Geoffrey Chaucer) in Newark, New Jersey. It will open next autumn and will feature large classes taught
by experienced teachers coupled with intensive daily one-on-one tutoring that supports and tracks individual student learning. We believe our approach is sound and is supported by research. In our
program we are building on the experience of a few other innovative schools and then planning to go further by testing the limits of how technology can assist tracking student performance and
tailor daily lessons accordingly. If we are successful in boosting student achievement, Great Oaks Charter School will become a kind of research and development initiative for public schools in
Newark and elsewhere.
On my most recent visit to the UK, I visited a school in Twickenham run by the innovative Swedish network of schools known as
Kunskapsskolan (‘knowledge school’). Their approach is to tailor education to each child, with goals set between the student, a tutor and the child’s parents. There I met two of the school’s
students, 11 year-olds Toby and Alba, who impressed me with the responsibility that they were taking for advancing their own education. In Sweden, Kunskapsskolan has grown to serve 9,000 students
in 30 schools in less than a dozen years. It is an approach that has the education world buzzing, given their results in Sweden. This autumn, Kunskapsskolan will open it first school in the US: a
charter school known as Innovate Manhattan Charter School in New York. In today’s flat world, an innovator like Kunskapsskolan is transcending national boundaries and providing a dynamic
alternative to moribund state-run schools that have changed little in the last 100 years.
One of the founding teachers at a charter school where I once worked was fond of saying that ‘charter schools are one of those policies where the right meets the left’. That is, an initiative where
conservative ideas of competition and choice are joined with liberal ideas of community empowerment and redress of racial inequality. Perhaps the observation has resonance for a Tory-Lib/Dem
coalition government that has made free schools one of its signature policy initiatives.
Michael Thomas Duffy is the Managing Director of Victory Education Partners, a firm that advises governments and others on the creation and operation of schools.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 14, 2011