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Charter Schools and the American Experience

• Adam Peshek

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled that state-authorized charter schools are, in fact, public schools and are owed public funds raised for public school students. After four years of legal back-and-forth, 16,000 students in more than 40 Louisiana schools can rest assured that the education at their school of choice will be funded for the foreseeable future.

The case hinged on two questions. First, are charter schools “public” if they are authorized by the state and not directly controlled by a local school district? Second, should state-authorized charter schools be granted access to funds raised for local school districts? In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled “yes” on both questions. The Court noted that it is the legislature who directs the state’s public education system and any child attending a school within that system is due their fair share of public funding.

Having lost the battle of ideas in states across the country, opponents of charter schools are turning to courts as a new line of attack. In lawsuits filed from Washington State to Florida, charter opponents are arguing that charter schools cannot be public, since they are not operated by a school district with an elected school board that operates all schools within its geographic boundaries. Such school districts decide where its students go to school, which teachers are hired and most other major decision that take place within the school day.

This is just one way of organizing a public benefit—one that was not handed down from above, but the result of humans making deliberate decisions in designing a system a century ago. But, the American experience has proven that there are other ways to organize the delivery of a public benefit.

Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville sailed from France and spent nine months traveling across America to chronicle what made the new nation unique. Published as “Democracy in America” in 1835, his observations were originally written to explain the American experience to Europeans, but have endured as a timeless self-examination for Americans.

A constant observation made by de Tocqueville was how Americans came together to solve problems. Whether it was putting on a festival or founding a hospital or school, he encountered voluntary associations and “admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.” Where one would find “governments” and “lords” called to action in Europe, de Tocqueville found “in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

A clear modern-day application of America’s instinct to voluntarily associate to solve local problems are the thousands of public charter schools that have emerged in communities over the past two decades. Charters are public schools that are tuition free, open to all students, held to the state’s academic accountability standards and publicly funded. Instead of being directly operated by a school district, charters are governed by an independent board who answers to an authorizer—typically a school district, state entity or university—who sets performance targets in a contract (the charter).

A defining characteristic of charters is that they are “opt-in.” This means that all individuals in the school are there by choice: the families, teachers, administrators, board members, etc. No one is assigned to a charter school; everyone joins through voluntary association. There is no greater form of “local control” than having to attract—and keep—all interested parties. If a school fails to deliver, it can be shut down by the authorizer for not meeting the contract or by parents who pull their children out of the school themselves. Democracy, after all, means rule of the people.

This act of voluntary association has led to a dizzying number of diverse schools. Whether it is improving the lives of Indigenous children, creating a stable environment for homeless students, preparing low-income students for computer science careers, offering a world-class STEM program or merely providing an excellent back-to-basics education, charter schools embody what can come from voluntary association.

Are all charter schools excellent? Of course not. Regardless of governance structure, there are good and bad schools—though some may be good for one student and bad for another. The point of charter schools is to create new venues for individuals to provide unique educational experiences.

As de Tocqueville noted, “A government could take the place of some of the greatest American associations… But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of an association?”

In many ways, charters are a purer example of what should be public education. Not a system based on one’s zip code, where affluent families can wall themselves off in their “free schools.” Charters embody the aspirational nature of American society: allowing individuals to opt into communities that work for them, without forcing those institutions on anyone else, in an effort to meet local needs.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.