Charter Course

As vouchers go to court, charters erode the old-school monopoly.


"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," wrote W.B. Yeats in 1920, in his apocalyptic poem "The Second Coming." The famous line is a fitting epitaph for the 20th century, though experience has robbed it of its dark resonance. All sorts of bids for centralized, consolidated power in politics and economics thankfully came up short in the last century. At the start of the 21st century, command-and-control models are blessedly out of fashion everywhere.

Everywhere, it seems, except in public education, where an old guard still struggles to defy the turn toward decentralized decision making that is energizing American society in myriad ways. In 1940, there were 117,000 public school districts in the U.S.; by 1970, there were 18,000; today the figure stands at about 14,800. Like Yeats, who feared that "anarchy" would follow the collapse of the center, public education's old guard is terrified by individual empowerment.

The most obvious battleground is school choice. The old guard was heartened by the decision in late December enjoining Cleveland, Ohio's popular and controversial voucher program. The program, enacted by the state legislature in 1995, gives some 3,500 low-income students in grades K-6 up to $2,500 each to enroll in any of 56 private schools that accept the vouchers. After the Ohio Supreme Court declared last June that the plan did not violate the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, opponents took their case to federal court, where they found a more sympathetic audience in U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr.

Noting that over 80 percent of the participating schools were religious, Oliver concluded that "the program has the effect of advancing religion through government-supported religious indoctrination" and ruled the voucher program unconstitutional. Mindful of the fallout last summer when he issued a temporary injunction against the program just days before the school year began, Oliver this time has delayed enforcement of his order until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit rules on the case (a decision is unlikely until some time after June). Since both sides have vowed to pursue all appeals, Oliver's ruling sets the stage for an eventual U.S. Supreme Court decision that may well settle not simply the fate of the Cleveland program but the larger issue of tax dollars being spent in religious schools.

Given its recent rulings on similar topics, it's unclear whether the nation's high court will ultimately certify or quash the Cleveland program. But even if Oliver's decision is upheld in the end, power is already leeching out of the system there, due to another, less dramatic reform. Ohio, like 31 other states and the District of Columbia, has a robust and rapidly growing charter school community that is slowly but surely subverting traditional public schooling.

On the face of it, charters–essentially, public schools that are exempt from most state education laws and regulations–appear less radical than vouchers. Hence, they are more palatable politically. But like vouchers, charters inject unmistakable elements of choice and competition into primary and secondary education; they take power from educators and deliver it to parents. By giving parents and students a ready exit from existing schools, charters facilitate the product differentiation, market segmentation, and customer satisfaction that Americans have come to expect and demand in every other sector of the economy.

That's why the response to charters has been phenomenal. The first charter school in the country opened its doors in Minnesota in 1992; during the 1998-99 school year, close to 1,700 charters nationwide educated about 350,000 students. More than 500 new charters are likely to open for business during the 2000-01 academic year.

The coincidence of the voucher case with a charter program makes Ohio a particularly relevant example of how charters work–as does the state's reputation for typifying a bland "middle American" consensus. Ohio's experience with charters underscores that, with or without publicly financed vouchers, the old-school monopoly will continue to face growing pressures to substantially restructure itself in the face of competition.

In 1997, Ohio allowed any nonprofit organization that satisfied certain criteria to start a charter school in seven of the state's eight largest urban areas. After less than two full years of operation (the first charters opened in the 1998-99 academic year), close to 50 charters in Ohio enroll about 10,400 students in places ranging from Oak Tree Montessori in downtown Cincinnati (which serves mostly black students from preschool through third grade) to the Northwest Ohio Building Trades Academy in Rossford (which provides a school-to-work program for high school juniors and seniors interested in the building and construction trades) to the Aurora Academy in Toledo (which is dedicated to "at-risk" low-income children and dispenses with traditional grade levels in favor of a "multiage learning community").

There have, of course, been problems. For instance, the Ohio Department of Education has moved to revoke the charter of a military-style school in Columbus that failed to renovate its school building properly and issue required textbooks. Elsewhere, there have been reports of students attending classes in buildings lacking sprinklers or adequate fire alarm systems. Additionally, some members of the state Board of Education, which grants the charters, have complained that they don't always have adequate time to review applications.

These issues are not trivial, but neither do they damn the charter system. If anything, they call attention to the varied experiments now taking place. If there were no problems, that would suggest that the state wasn't granting enough charters. An experiment with no mistakes is an experiment whose outcome has been predetermined–and whose point is less than pressing.

In spite of such concerns, charters have been welcomed with open arms by students and parents in Ohio. Indeed, total enrollment is expected to more than double next fall, when charters will be allowed in the state's 21 largest cities and in the state's weakest school districts. By the time the Supreme Court does rule on the Cleveland voucher plan, the landscape of public education will already be markedly different.

Certainly, it is significant that Ohio–a state held up (or derided) as defining mainstream America–has enthusiastically embraced charters. If it's happening there, it's happening everywhere. The "center" is not holding, but something very different from "anarchy" is emerging in public education.