Academic journal article Policy Review

Support Your Local Charter School

Academic journal article Policy Review

Support Your Local Charter School

Article excerpt

Civic entrepreneurs will be critical to the success of these fledgling independent public schools

A year ago, the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal urged Americans to "give smarter" and to support the community-based, results-oriented organizations that have the greatest impact on people and neighborhoods. In its report, Giving Better, Giving Smarter, the commission concluded that philanthropy must cultivate a new kind of giver--the "civic entrepreneur"--if it is to invest its money and time in ways that make a palpable difference in the lives of those in need.

Civic entrepreneurs build vibrant community institutions. They are as exacting in their giving and volunteering as they are in selecting their family doctor, buying a house, or choosing a college for their children. Their philanthropy is strategic, more like a long-term investment than a one-time gift. They tackle specific problems in their own communities by clearing paths to self-reliance and opportunity. They are willing to back bold new solutions, but they insist that civic enterprises remain accountable and achieve results.

Civic entrepreneurs need not be super-rich. Millions of ordinary people give money to community institutions or volunteer their time. Our task here is to suggest just a few of the ways in which civic entrepreneurs can play a crucial role in fostering one of the best examples of such community organizations: charter schools.

Help Wanted

A charter school is an independent public school freed from most bureaucratic hassles in return for producing superior results. If it delivers those results--for the same money as "regular" public schools, or less--and succeeds in attracting students, it gets to keep its charter and remain open. If it fails, it risks institutional death from the loss of either its charter or its students.

It's a tantalizing idea, and a popular one, judging from the length of the waiting lists at most of the nation's 1,000-plus charter schools, the frequency with which new schools appear, and the eagerness of many states to pass charter-school legislation. In a sphere of American life too fond of faddish "innovation," charter schools represent a genuine alternative to the status quo. At their best, they hold out the promise of many benefits: They give freer rein to creative, entrepreneurial, motivated educators; they welcome and encourage more involvement by parents; they subject competing teaching methods and curricula to the judgment of education consumers; they spur conventional public schools to improve their performance; and they offer a diverse set of students a safe learning environment led by educators committed to achievement.

Furthermore, as charter schools help us reinvent education, they help us reinvigorate civil society in America. They are community-based learning centers shaped by shared needs, priorities, and expectations. These expectations create moral norms and values that permeate these new schools. Charter schools offer educators the opportunity to create new professional communities, freed from centralized micromanagement and run according to a set of shared educational precepts. Finally, charter schools eschew rigid contracts with teachers' unions in favor of employment arrangements that value initiative, entrepreneurship, and results.

Our experience with charter schools suggests, however, that their success and continued proliferation are hardly assured. They need a lot of help if they are to flourish as genuine options for more than a handful of American children. There are a thousand ways in which civic entrepreneurs can help charter schools. For the purposes of this article, however, we are addressing our suggestions to a particular subset of civic entrepreneurs: those individuals and organizations best able to nurture fledgling charter schools with financial support and technical expertise.

Like any new venture, charter schools encounter their share of start-up problems: bureaucratic red tape, a dearth of facilities, cash-flow gaps, personnel problems, unpredictable demand, and skimpy materials. …

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