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Commentary: All schools can have charter-like autonomy if they also accept charter accountability

By Gary Houchens
Special to KyForward

During Kentucky’s debate over becoming the 44th state to allow charter schools, and especially since the charter law successfully passed the state’s General Assembly in March, I have often heard public school advocates ask why, if autonomy seems to be a key to charter school success, shouldn’t all schools – including those operated by public districts – have a similar kind of freedom from regulation and oversight.

In an interview with Kentucky public radio, Kentucky School Boards Association spokesperson Brad Hughes said that public schools leaders will be watching to see what lessons can be learned from charter schools and will seek the same kinds of freedoms for all schools. “You’re going to see public schools come back and say, ‘Hey, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.’ Let’s release that from all public schools, to be able to see if it’s going to produce there academically, will it produce results everywhere else,” Hughes said.

My own answer to this question is straightforward. Yes – all schools can have charter school autonomy, and I’m ready to give it to them today, if they are also willing to accept charter school accountability.

Charter schools are autonomous public (tuition-free) schools that are not run by a district. Charter schools are self-managed; they hire their own teachers on their own terms, set their own curriculum and instructional program, make their own schedule, and contract directly with vendors for all services used by the school. Charter schools are schools of choice, meaning parents elect to send their child to a charter school (as opposed to be assigned to a school by the district).

If more students apply for a charter than the school has seats available, a lottery is held to keep admissions fair. They are governed by a “charter” – essentially a performance contract with an authorizing agent (in Kentucky that agent will be the local school district) that stipulates achievement targets the school must reach.

So in exchange for their autonomy, charter schools face the ultimate form of accountability, one that is essentially unknown to traditional public schools: if they cannot attract students or meet the conditions of their performance contract, they will be shut down.

Are public school employees willing to accept that level of accountability? Are they willing to operate with complete autonomy from the district, compete for students, and be subject to closure if students fail to learn or are unsatisfied with their educational services? If so, then certainly they are welcome to apply to be conversion charter school, which is provided under Kentucky’s charter law if a majority of parents are willing to support the move.

I’m willing to go a step further, though, and completely remake school governance so that all schools operate with this same balance of autonomy and accountability. The best model for this I’ve seen yet is outlined in great detail in Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim’s 2015 book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education. Hill and Jochim imagine a system in which the local school board no longer runs schools, but serves as an authorizer of a slate of independent schools of choice operating under yearly performance contracts.

This isn’t in the realm of fantasy. Hill and Jochim’s model is inspired by several urban experiences in “portfolio districts” like New Orleans and Denver which are successfully demonstrating how to create a healthy educational ecosystem that prioritizes parent choice, innovation, and school autonomy.

Hill and Jochim would have states replace local school boards with (ideally) elected Civic Education Councils (CEC). The CEC’s main job is to hire a Chief Executive Officer (CEO, or superintendent). Hill and Jochim articulate a “constitution” for the governance of schools, the CEC, and the state educational authority that will function as a system of checks and balances to impose fairly strict limits on school autonomy.

Schools would all be independently managed (districts would not own or operate schools), and would have to apply to the CEC for a contract or charter to operate. The CEC and CEO would review applications and approve a diverse portfolio of schools to operate in the district, designed to maximize education options for families.

Each student would be allocated a virtual “backpack” of education funds, adjusted for the student’s demographic background and needs, which would follow the student to the portfolio school of that family’s choice. Other than some small percentage retained by the CEC for administrative costs, no dollars would flow to any school other than the funds attached to individual students who attend them.

A very small central office would be responsible for collecting, monitoring, and reporting performance data on schools and providing some oversight to ensure financial and operational transparency. Schools could contract with the district for other services like transportation or professional development, but would not be required to do so and could obtain those services from other vendors.

Schools that cannot attract sufficient enrollment or meet their performance targets would be subject to losing their charter and might be replaced by other operators at the conclusion of their contract.

I suspect most educators would consider this a radical change in school governance. Some would be reluctant to give up the considerable political power they current wield as district employees. However, Hill and Jochim’s model is the logical conclusion of what Andy Smarick calls the “differentiation and choice” paradigm that is slowly replacing an outdated, one-size-fits-all framework of educational delivery that I believe is no longer sufficient for our rapidly deconsolidating economy and culture.

School autonomy would mean teachers and school administrators would finally be completely free to innovate and experiment with the only limit being whether their efforts yield results and satisfy their client families. Every school could become as “nimble” as charter schools in their responsiveness to student needs. And most importantly, every family would potentially have access to a much richer array of school choices, regardless of their ZIP code or income level.

So if educators are really serious about asking for charter-like autonomy, I encourage them to own the idea – and the accountability that comes with it. A Democratic Constitution for Education explores the technical challenges of such an approach in depth. It is must reading for anyone who genuinely cares about school autonomy.

Gary Houchens, a former teacher, principal, and school district administrator, now serves as Associate Professor of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research at Western Kentucky University

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