Michael Thomas-Duffy

Web exclusive: the global free schools network

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 for Superman”.

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.

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