There is no confusion about the historical impetus for the California charter school movement: Californians had grown frustrated, even panicked, by the perception* that their public schools were failures and something needed to be done about it.
Enter the reformers.
In an article they wrote for the Phi Delta Kappan in 1996, former State Senator Gary Hart and Sue Burr, the sponsor and author of California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992, say a major, credible threat to public education had begun to coalesce: vouchers.
The idea of school vouchers with libertarian portability of per-student funding, redeemable by private and even religious schools, was not new. It had been promoted by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and other free-market economists and politicians since the 1950s. Proponents pointed to supposed failings of public schools and promoted abandoning the public-private dichotomy altogether on the idea that market competition for students and funding would lead to improved learning.
Hart and Burr wrote about the emerging California voucher movement, “This was not a modest voucher pilot proposal, but a full-blown effort to reconstitute public education in California.”
“We were convinced that the voucher initiative should not be taken lightly. It was almost like playing Russian roulette with public education, except instead of a one-in-six chance of being hit by a deadly blow, the odds were closer to 50-50. Something had to be done to respond to the public’s frustration with public schools, and it seemed possible to us to craft a legislative proposal that did not sacrifice the attractive features of the voucher movement—namely choice of schools, local control and responsiveness to clients—while still preserving the basic principles of public education: that it be free, nonsectarian and nondiscriminatory.”
Hart, a Democrat and graduate the Harvard School of Education, had previously sponsored successful bills that piloted decentralized school administration yet emphasized accountability and student assessments. The essential ingredients leading to the Charter Schools Act of 1992 came together under Hart and Burr:
- Public frustration with public school performance
- The credible threat of a revolutionary voucher initiative
- Experience with liberalized school governance models
But let’s be very clear about a couple of major points that come up all the time in the charter school debate:
- Improving failing public schools was the prime directive at the core of Hart’s pre-charter reforms, the voucher movement and the Charter Schools Act of 1992.
If California public schools had been seen as effective, no generalized public uprising for change, or for vouchers specifically, would have manifest. CA public education reform has always been fundamentally about remediating perceived systemic failure.
- The concepts of ‘school choice’ and ‘vigorous free-market competition’ as means to improve public education came from the voucher movement.
Today, ‘school choice’ and ‘competition’ occupy center stage in reform and charter school propaganda, but these libertarian, often anti-government, notions were inherited from a movement originally bent on ending public education as we know it.
And let’s not overlook that true school voucher initiatives have been voted on by Californians twice in the past 20 years and lost badly both times, garnering only 30% of votes. This proves there is indeed demand in California for libertarian free market reforms in public education, but it’s a minority view, not at all mainstream.
Today, whenever someone claims that the “whole point” of the Charter Schools Act of 1992 was to create choice and competition in public education, I dispute this claim as incomplete, ill-informed or self-serving. They either don’t know the historical context or they’ve exposed themselves as a voucher proponent outside the mainstream.
The primary policy goal of education reform today, as it was twenty years ago, should be fixing low-performing schools and providing extraordinary support for students failing in traditional programs at risk of dropping out of education altogether. Charter schools, in certain circumstances, may be an appropriate and effective means of achieving this goal.
But where students are thriving in high-performing public schools that are cost effective and non-discriminatory, no systemic disruption from ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ is warranted, especially if it’s contrary to the majority will of the community exerting democratic local control over its successful public schools.
* A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform is the title of the 1983 report of American President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history. Among other things, the report contributed to the ever-growing assertion that American schools were failing, and it touched off a wave of local, state, and federal reform efforts. [Wikipedia]