Written by Don Cooper and Ember Reichgott Junge
Public education has been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to rapidly transform. Simply put, formal rules and professional norms around teaching and learning no longer apply.
How educators respond to this challenge impacts all of us. Public education is one of the few unifying institutions that connects our communities and conveys to all the knowledge and democratic values necessary for self-governance.
It’s been a hard change. Many public schools struggled with the transition, understandably so. At the start, some districts halted education altogether, directed teachers not to deliver new content, or only provided “enrichment” offerings until new rules were drawn. Charter public schools, on the other hand, led public education as it adapted to our new normal.
Why could charters respond faster? Because the idea of “charter public schools” or “chartering” is an organizational innovation designed to promote innovation and change, not just a different way of teaching.
Think of it this way: School districts are organized like traditional government agencies. They are built on the “public bureau” model; controlled from a central office with a structured hierarchy, a rigid employment model, and well-defined policies and procedures that codify practices and mitigate risk. Decisions in the district sector are typically made centrally and disseminated down for implementation. It’s a good model for delivering consistent education at scale but, by design, it is slow to respond and adverse to change.
The charter sector is organized differently, based on autonomy. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Each school hires and oversees its talent differently. There is no one person “in charge”; authority is diffused throughout the space, from school to school, rather than concentrated in one location. Schools can adapt more quickly, try new things, isolate and eliminate what doesn’t work and replicate what does. It’s a model designed to promote innovation.
Equally fundamental to chartering is that district and charter schools do not exist in isolation from each other. The two sectors of public education have a symbiotic relationship. What’s learned in the charter sector can inform practices in school districts to help drive their improvement. The systemization within districts informs how charters can operate more efficiently. In tandem, this allows public education to be “self-improving” as promising practices are scaled up to help more kids learn more quickly.
Though innovation is fundamental to the creation of chartering, moments like this illustrate best the genius in its design. Harnessing what the charter sector can offer at this time can help public education transition faster—helping communities to grow and change together to improve the lives of students, families, and society as a whole.
Don Cooper is Adviser and Ember Reichgott Junge is Lead for the National Charter Schools Founders Library, launched by the National Charter Schools Institute. Former Minnesota Senator Reichgott Junge is author of the first charter school law, and Cooper is Deputy Director for Charter Schools at Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan.