Last week in San Francisco, I finally understood the significance of the American Charter School movement.
I didn’t set out to learn about Charter Schools. A small group of us – CAIS Heads, Board members, and IT Directors – toured four innovative schools as part of our Online Learning Steering Committee’s research. We are working on three main questions (see page 4), and I will be writing more about that learning at some point. But for now, I want to focus on the fact that two of the schools were Charter Schools, and we need to pay attention to them.
If you are like me, you have heard of Charter Schools, but you don’t really understand them. So let me begin here: What is a Charter School?
Charter Schools were created to improve and increase school choice and some have become hubs of innovation as a result. Some States, including California, have passed laws that will allow anyone to open a Charter School if they pass a rigorous approval process (which includes about 300 pages of applications). Once approved, the Charter School receives the $7000 per student education grant instead of the public school system. Their other source of revenue comes from private donations, and because there is often a mandate to be innovative, many forward-thinking Foundations are supporting these schools. So these are public schools, with no tuition, but you must operate and be reviewed annually under an approved charter.
Perhaps you have heard, as I had, that these schools are controversial. I now know the reasons: there is a risk that anyone can run them; there is a perception that admissions is selective and expulsion, known as ‘cropping’ is high; and they are not unionized. While it is true that not all Charter Schools are successful, the reality is that many Charter Schools are providing a free – and effective – alternative to low income, high risk minority students. This is important for Americans, where their public education system needs fixing.
But there is another reason why I believe Canadians need to pay attention to them. Two of the schools we visited – Summit Prep and Flex Academy – are doing some exceptional things. Both are combining the best of online education with the best of onsite education. Both are trying out new models that are low cost and yet highly personal. And although they are relatively new, their college admissions rates and results are already causing others to pay attention. Stay tuned for a deeper dive on the specifics of their online strategies (we are working on a CAIS Report on Online Learning).
For now, I believe we need to understand a few key points. i. Charter Schools are spreading in America – Washington has recently passed a similar law and the first Charter School will open there next year. ii. Charter Schools will raise the bar for all schools, eventually in Canada as well, as they make their materials available to everyone, again for free. iii. CAIS schools need to pay attention to them sooner than later. There is no shortage of good and innovative ideas; the shortage is in the implementation of strategy. Here are two schools – and there are more! – that have the right charter as well as the right execution of the charter. That combination makes them worthy of our attention.