"How Much is Tuition?": Charter Schools Defined

Terrence Moore

September 1, 2006

Competition from charter schools is the best way to motivate the ossified bureaucracies governing too many public schools. This grass-roots revolution seeks to reconnect public education with our most basic values: ingenuity, responsibility, and accountability.

—Senator Joseph Lieberman

Charter schools are among the least understood public institutions around, perhaps even less understood than the bolder form of school reform known as vouchers. Often parents have called my school, Ridgeview, to ask, “How much is tuition?” One witty board member said, in light of human beings’ love of a good deal, we should respond with, “For you, it costs nothing.” Several of our critics in the paper have snarled that Ridgeview is “an elite private school.” (Presumably being an elite school is a bad thing, though no one complains of elite sports teams or auto-glass repairmen.) And yet as a charter school, Ridgeview charges no tuition, though we fancy that the education we provide is comparable to private schools that charge many thousands of dollars per child per year. Indeed, to underline our charter-school status, we have had to display prominently on our marquee, on our website, and in all advertising the words “no tuition.” Far from being private schools, charter schools are public institutions. In fact, they may be the most authentically American form of schooling.

Charter schools have been defined as “independent public schools of choice, freed from rules but accountable for results.” Charter schools are independent in the sense that they do not report to school boards in matters of hiring, curriculum, administration, or governance. In fact, most charter schools have very little interaction with their districts except when certain state reports are due or standardized tests are being administered, in short, when certain state-mandated functions are being coordinated at the district level. Almost all decisions made in a charter school are “site-based” as the lingo goes now. Though mostly autonomous, charter schools are nonetheless public because their revenue comes from public taxes and they are open to the public. Indeed, it could be argued that charter schools are more open to the public than “neighborhood schools” since a student’s ability to attend a charter school does not depend on his parents’ residency. Whereas regular public schools adhere to strict neighborhood boundaries, charter schools normally admit students regardless of where they live. In that sense, a child does not have to live in a “good neighborhood” to go to a “good school” (Would that the one really followed so seamlessly from the other!).

The term “choice” is one you will hear often in connection with charter schools. Indeed, it is the charter-school movement’s watchword. Choice refers to the fact that charter schools give parents a choice in schools, especially in the type of school, where none existed before. Choice also means that no one is forced to attend. Parents and students have to choose a charter; no one assumes they will. The element of choice is essential to school reform since the opposite of choice is either forced uniformity or inertia. If parents imagine that the only possible kind of school is the one their student attends, then they will be unlikely to seek some form of education that is better. Were that school a great school, then such seeking would not be necessary. But if that school is only mediocre or actually very poor, the ability to find a better school is central to the child’s education and well-being.

The neighborhood system of schooling, in which there is no choice, is akin to Henry Ford’s Model T: mass-produced; “you can have any color as long as it’s black.” Charter schools, on the other hand, introduce choice and therefore competition into this system. Whenever parents have a choice, they will be inclined to use it. This exercise of choice is often criticized by public-school apologists. “Why are you taking your kids out of the public schools and leaving all those other poor kids to an inferior education?” Such selfish parents, wanting to pull their kids from a sinking ship without regard for the other kids whose parents might not have figured out the ship is sinking! Actually, exercising self-interest in this case might be the most public-spirited thing a parent can do. Competition forces public schools to improve a lot more than either criticism or pleading ever will. In economic terms, when “voice” proves unavailing, individuals must have the capacity of “exit.” Ford may not be the leading automobile manufacturer anymore, but at least all its cars aren’t black.

Charter schools are also more accountable for their results than are regular public schools. Charter schools are accountable principally in two ways. First, they are required to take the same standardized tests that all other public schools must take. Insofar as publication of the results of these tests has become extremely visible throughout the nation, charter schools become known by their performance from the first year of operation, often a very difficult year given all the hurdles involved in setting up a new school. I am well aware of the typical public-school accusation that charter schools take all the “most motivated” children from the neighborhood schools. The implication is that a charter school’s high performance can be attributed solely to the school’s clientele, so to speak. If that were the case, then why have so many charter schools using ultra-progressive curricula ended up having the worst test results in their districts despite their students’ being in no way disadvantaged? Moreover, why would the most motivated students be moving to a charter school unless they are seeking to be more challenged, to get a better education, to keep from being “bored,” as my students put it?

Second, the element of choice also makes charter schools accountable. If parents do not like the education their children are getting, they are free to take their children out of the school. In fact, they are free to leave for any reason, whether reasonable or not. A school of choice with a declining enrollment has no option but to change or, eventually, to go under. Without choice, neighborhood schools are accountable to no such pressures. They stay in business forever, whether they are successfully teaching students or not.

Opponents of charter schools must oppose them on one of these principles: their independence, their public funding and openness to the public, their reliance upon choice, or their accountability. Realize that these are extremely compelling, indeed extremely American, principles to oppose. If we study the arguments of these opponents, we shall find that their criticism boils down to their fear of competition and to charter schools’ receiving public funding based on the number of students they have. In short, these critics are monopolists. They want regular public schools protected from competition at all costs. I suppose there is an argument for monopoly, but we must wonder whether critics of monopoly would practice what they preach in other matters in which we take choice for granted. Do the critics of charter schools wish to be forced to buy Fords simply because Ford has fallen on hard times and could use the business or be required to buy HP computers though they might prefer Apple or Dell? If they go to church, do they wish to pay tithes to the church located closest to their house, though it is Catholic and they are Protestants? What if they do not go to church? If they live in Fort Collins, Colorado would they agree in all cases to send their children to C.S.U. and not to U.N.C. or to Colorado College or to The Citadel or to M.I.T.? Would these public-school apologists as parents agree to have their children go only to the closest pediatrician or dentist? Might they agree to being Denver Broncos fans even if they grew up in Pittsburgh or Dallas?

Choice is as American as apple pie in most everything except for schools. Indeed, Americans who do not like apple pie can always eat cherry or rhubarb without being thought un-American. Parents who send their children to charter schools, on the other hand, are often looked upon as some kind of traitors. Americans have accomplished wonders to make themselves the freest people who have ever lived, but in this one domain, the one that philosophers such as Plato considered the most important, they are substantially unfree, both in their practice and their thinking. Consequently, charter schools constitute a “rebirth of freedom” in an important human endeavor, the formation of children’s minds and souls, that has remained unfree for far too long.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and the principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools, a K-12 charter school in Fort Collins, Colorado. On the 2005 state testing, Ridgeview’s high school was ranked the number-one public high school in the state.