Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Organizational Structures and Perceived Cultures of Community-Charter Schools in Ohio

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Organizational Structures and Perceived Cultures of Community-Charter Schools in Ohio

Article excerpt

The claim that autonomy in the classroom and freedom from bureaucracy will stimulate innovation in teaching and learning and result in improved student achievement is based on an assumption that all bureaucracy is bad. The community-charter schools that Ms. Fox studied suggest, however, that this assumption is facile at best.

IN FALL 1997, Ohio adopted a plan for the implementation of charter schools in its eight largest urban school districts in fall 1998. Subsequent legislation allowed the establishment of charter schools in any of Ohio's 21 large urban districts or in any school district declared by the state board of education to be in a situation of academic emergency. Because all private and public schools in Ohio receive charters from the state, these new kinds of schools are referred to as "community-charter schools" or "community-supported charter schools." As I've done in the title, I'll use these terms throughout the rest of this article to distinguish Ohio's charter schools from those in other states and from the general concept of charter schools.

Charter school advocates claim that charter schools will be successful primarily because they are free from rules, regulations, and the weight of bureaucracy -- normal aspects of public school systems. They believe that charter schools will provide better student performance in exchange for this autonomy.1 According to Bruno Manno and his colleagues, the "charter concept is simple but powerful: sound school choices can be provided to families under the umbrella of public education without micromanagement by government bureaucracies."2 This anti-bureaucratic ideology contends that the top-down bureaucratic system, with all its rules and regulations from state and local education agencies, inhibits efforts to innovate in public schools.3

The idea that freedom from rules and regulations will guarantee innovative practices in governance as well as in teaching and learning provides a basis for the argument favoring autonomy within a charter school structure.4 Many charter school advocates "support the notion that educational innovations develop best from decentralized, bottom-up sources."5 Charter schools present an opportunity to "shift the power from bureaucracies to the schools themselves and ultimately to the individuals responsible for them -- educators, parents, and students."6 The "shift from bureaucratic to autonomous governance brings potential for expanded, inclusive, and localized democratic decision making."7 This shift allows individual charter schools to make most of their own decisions regarding budget, personnel, curriculum, and instructional program. Some argue that, in each school, only those closest to the students -- teachers, support staff members, administrators, and parents -- should make the necessary decisions regarding restructuring.8

Waivers from bureaucratic rules and regulations create the potential for innovations that could result in increased academic achievement for students.9 However, the assumption that autonomy will result in governance structures that support grassroots involvement in decision making and so lead to more innovative educational environments has been examined in only a few studies.10

In a qualitative case study of four of Ohio's community-supported charter schools, I sought to describe the organizational structures of the schools to determine who was involved in making formal and informal decisions affecting life in the schools and whether those structures supported empowerment of the staff in grassroots governance.11 My descriptive study addressed the question of whether participants perceived their schools' cultures to be conducive to enhanced learning environments for students. Eighteen teachers, four administrators, and one governing board member took part in individual interviews and focus groups, all conducted at their school sites.

The initial group of three community-charter schools used for this qualitative case study were selected from the 15 community-charter schools opened in large urban districts in Ohio during the 1998-99 school year. …

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