Deborah Kenny: Why Charter Schools Work

Judy Hartnett's picture
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Twenty years ago, the country's first charter school opened in Minnesota. This is a momentous anniversary not just for the two million families who now send their children to public charter schools, but for all Americans.

The charter movement is not only about opening charter schools—its goal has always been to fundamentally transform public education in this country.

Critics claim that charter schools are successful only because they cherry-pick students, because they have smaller class sizes, or because motivated parents apply for charter lotteries and non-motivated parents do not. And even if charters are successful, they argue, there is no way to scale that success to reform a large district.

None of that is true. Charters succeed because of their two defining characteristics—accountability and freedom. In exchange for being held accountable for student achievement results, charter schools are generally free from bureaucratic and union rules that prevent principals from hiring, firing or evaluating their own teams.

Freedom without accountability is irresponsible. Like all professionals, educators need to be accountable for the results of their work. Yet accountability without freedom is unfair: How can teachers or principals be held responsible for results if they don't control decisions about curriculum or teaching methods? Accountability and freedom do not guarantee that a school will provide an excellent education, but they are prerequisites.

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