Models of Participation

Article excerpt

COMPETITION

Do charter schools hold the key to responsive government?

Even the smallest businesses know how important it is to listen to their customers. Yet in the public sector, after decades of efforts to reform government and promote greater citizen input, government ineffectiveness and insensitivity to public need still abounds. Can government ever be as attentive to citizens' needs as businesses are to consumer needs?

The answer to how public services can adopt a more democratic and inclusive decision-making attitude, writes Michael Mintrom, associate professor of political studies at the University of Auckland, may lie in the charter schools. His study, "Market Organizations and Deliberative Democracy: Choice and Voice in Public Service Delivery," was published last March in Administration & Society (vol. 35, no. 1).

Charter schools are designed to shake up the entrenched education system by competing with traditional public schools. Their funding is based upon enrollment, and is not guaranteed. They are market-driven organizations because they survive by competing to attract and retain students.

To investigate the extent to which charter schools can embody both market-driven and inclusive decision-making logics, Mintrom surveyed decision-making processes in schools in Michigan, which has the third-largest concentration of charter schools in the United States. He surveyed 101 charter school principals (out of the state's 138 schools) and 105 public school principals, who reported how decisions are made at their schools. Mintrom compiled the list of practices reported and sent it to all participants, who then reported on which of the practices were used at their school and how long they had been in place.

The survey results found that decision making in charter schools is a more inclusive process than it is in traditional public schools. For example, the school board consulted parents on decisions in 25 percent of charter school cases, compared with 14 percent of traditional public school cases. The board consulted teachers in 28 percent of charter school cases (versus 11 percent) and consulted principals in 84 percent of cases (versus 18 percent). …