HEALTH & EDUCATION|
64: Charter to teach
Choice in state-funded education
The problem: bureaucratisation in schools
State-run education was supposed to guarantee equality of access, but many countries today are finding that their education systems have become bureaucratic, over-rigid, and distant from the parents they are supposed to serve - as well as producing disappointing results.
The solution: state finance, private supply
In response to these problems, a number of countries have now sought to open up the provision of state-financed education to parents and other bodies. So state finance ensures that all children have access to education, but competition and parental control ensure that its delivery is more responsive, less bureaucratic, and output-focused.
Example: charter schools
In the United States, changes in public policy have generally been instigated by the popular support of grass-roots activists for education reform. The continuous growth of these movements has been fostered by concerned business people, charitable foundations and non-profit groups, teachers, civil rights activists, politicians, and hundreds of thousands of parents.
Support for school choice in the United States is not linked to any social or demographic group - its proponents are poor, middle-class, and rich; black, white, and Hispanic; Republican, Democrat, and independent.
School choice is manifested in the Charter Schools - as well as public vouchers, private vouchers, education accounts and education tax incentives that are springing up in state after state. The drive behind it has been the common recognition that the management of education by municipal monopolies is deeply flawed: the centralization of authority was associated with increasingly rigid and detailed regulations, which cost ever more but did little to increase standards - and often produced even worse results.
There are today some 2000 Charter Schools in the US, where they first took off as a means of encouraging diversity and choice within the state school system, based on the principle that state education needed to be reformed to offer more choices to pupils and parents.
Originally a New Democrat idea, Charter Schools were intended to free innovators from the bureaucratic restrictions of traditional schools. In return, these innovators would be held accountable for results and required to measure up to the standards they set for themselves. These new schools would have to attract and hold students or go out of business.
The mechanics are simple. A public sponsor (usually the state board of education or the local school board) grants a charter to an organization (of parents, charities, or sometimes business leaders) to supply a clearly defined educational programme. Tax funded, these schools cannot charge for tuition, and their charters are subject to periodic renewal - usually every five years - by the public sponsor.
The best Charter Schools are thus much like tuition-free independent schools: they have the same pressures to succeed (the knowledge that if they don't, they will not have their charter renewed) without restricting their entry only to the well-off. Crucially, they are exempt from many of the local and state regulations governing municipal schools; they have financial and legal autonomy; and they can hire and fire teachers as they see fit.
Because of local politics, however, they often have to operate with a smaller per capita funding level than the municipal schools, and are subject to far more onerous operating conditions than traditional tax-funded schools. The laws governing their establishment vary: some US states provide start-up grants, on-going technical assistance, or both; but many do not. In some states, existing non-sectarian independent schools have been allowed to convert to charter status.
The educational establishment in the United States initially resisted the concept of Charter Schools, arguing that they would become schools for the social and economic elite and would cherry-pick the best students, leaving only the most difficult pupils behind: the slow learners, those with behavioural problems, and the underachievers. But that was fundamentally to misunderstand the point of Charter Schools. Almost all the mainstream Charter Schools are non-selective, and have no say whatsoever in which pupils are admitted. Those that do select tend to the opposite of cherry-picking: they specialize in precisely those failing students whose parents want an alternative to their being left behind.
The main point to note about Charter Schools is that they open up the tax-funded sector to a whole new variety of providers. They allow innovation to come into the system, and introduce the independent-sector ethos of success as the sole justification of their existence. According to research conducted by the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, students at the twenty Charter Schools in Minnesota made performance gains of 1.3 to 2 years in various subjects.
There is now a critical mass behind Charter Schools, such that in the District of Columbia one in ten of all pupils attends a Charter School; in Kansas City, Missouri it is nearly one in seven; and in Arizona, one in five of all schools are Charter Schools. The figures will become a lot higher as time goes on. Serious policymakers are now wondering what an all-Charter system would look like.
Example: Transforming Kiwi education
New Zealand also introduced Charter Schools, to great effect. The restructuring of public education began in 1988, based upon he transformation of government-run schools into locally-managed Charter Schools, the creation of an autonomous standards agency to assess performance, and the establishment of a small voucher programme for low-income students (see the chapter That'll Do Nicely).
These changes have resulted in the devolution of power, responsibility, and information to parents, communities and teachers. A seven-year study of the reforms concludes that they have brought 'new energy and focus' to schools. Self-managed Charter Schools have 'increased the local financial and human resources available to schools. Teachers and principals have paid more attention to what they do. Many principals and teachers…see positive gains for children.' An astonishing 82 percent of parents now claim to be satisfied with their children's education. Among parents of voucher students, 97 percent are satisfied or very satisfied with the education their children are receiving at an independent school.
The New Zealand experience shows just how Charter Schools work to benefit the less well-off. For years, strict zoning legislation bolstered inequities as the higher-income and predominantly white communities benefited from better municipal schools, whilst lower-income Maori and Pacific Island families had no choice but to attend local schools that were caught in a spiral of failure.
New Zealand's education system was transformed almost overnight. To improve 'the effectiveness and efficiency of resource use in education', as an official policy document put it, the then Labour government shifted authority from the central Department of Education to individual schools. The Department of Education and its 4000 employees were replaced by a Ministry of Education with a staff of only 400. A board of trustees for each school replaced the existing district school boards so that "the running of the institutions [became] a partnership between the [education] professionals and the particular community". At the same time, the government removed school zoning. This measure was designed to improve equity in enrolment, to give families a choice of educational alternatives, to encourage healthy competition among schools for students, and to promote better educational practices.
De-zoning has provided a majority of families with a choice of schools: 85 percent of parents surveyed said their child was attending their first choice of school. The choices of the remaining 15 percent of parents have been limited by transportation, enrolment limits, and cost.
Assessment: freer is better
Unlike US-style Charter Schools, the New Zealand reforms miss out on one crucial tool: the flexibility for public-sector schools to open and close according to their ability to attract students. As in the United Kingdom, in New Zealand, no new schools may be opened if there is space for students in existing schools - however poor. Students and teachers can thus be stuck in failing schools simply because the popular schools are filled to capacity.
Allowing schools to open and close according to parental demand is critical to competitiveness and accountability: Unfortunately, New Zealand's best Charter Schools have waiting lists, while some students, often from low-income Maori families, are still trapped in failing schools.
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Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
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