by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Charter schools explicitly shifted power from the government to individuals and neighborhood organizations. They prioritized local needs and local decision-making. They trusted families and practitioners to have better information and more wisdom than technocrats. They made room for entrepreneurialism and innovation. They cultivated a diversity of school options to suit a pluralistic society. They focused governments on outcomes instead of inputs. They emerged from piecemeal reform of a longstanding institution, which proceeded slowly from modest community initiatives, not all at once in accordance with grand plans devised by experts.
Though welfare reform is perhaps conservatism’s most visible domestic policy success of the last generation, charter schools may be more significant, and may have more ripple effects in the future. At a time when Donald Trump has tempted the Republican party and conservatism towards an embrace of statism, strong central leadership, and bellicose certainty, charter schooling represents a textbook case of the opposite: how individual empowerment, an enlivened civil society, and a modest skepticism about complex, centralized solutions can change lives for the better. Indeed, the story of charter schooling, a national movement that grew from an early-1990s Minnesotan pilot program, could serve as an inspiration for conservative policy leaders in the months and years ahead.
In 1990, there were no charter schools. Public education was still defined by the traditional school district’s “exclusive territory franchise”—its right to own and operate every single public school in its area. But in some reform circles an idea had been percolating. Perhaps educators and community leaders could partner and run public schools outside the traditional system. In 1991, Governor Arne Carlson of Minnesota signed legislation that would allow up to eight “outcomes-based schools.” …
… Chartering is premised on a basic if provocative idea: The principles of public education allow state leaders to cast the government in a role very different from the one it occupied for a century. Instead of serving as the monopoly public-school operator, government can also (or instead) oversee public schools operated by others. Rather than creating school districts that provide all of a locality’s schools, the state government can create “authorizers” to empower and then monitor nonprofit groups that start, run, and grow schools.
Chartering is a reimagining of the state’s part in an essential public enterprise. It follows from David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government credo, that when there’s collective work to be done, the state can “steer” instead of “row.” It can generate public value by establishing principles and goals but give others the authority to do the work.