Assessing 20 Years of Charter School Performance

Date01 January 2014
Published date01 January 2014
Book Reviews 127
Michael Thomas Duffy is president
of the Great Oaks Foundation, which runs
a teacher training residency in partnership
with New York University’s Steinhardt
School of Education and has helped create
charter schools in both Newark and New
York City. He also is adjunct professor in
NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service.
Book Reviews
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 1, pp. 127–128. © 2013 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12152.
thought-provoking commentary in the volume.  e
authors interviewed f‌i ve prominent education think-
ers, and they fastidiously note that each was inter-
viewed individually for 45 minutes to an hour.  eir
answers to the same four questions were recorded:
1. In what ways if any have charter schools chal-
lenged the def‌i nition and boundaries of public
2. Across the levels of the system—classroom,
school, district—where have charters suc-
ceeded and where have they fallen short?
3. How is the relationship between charter and
non-charter public schools changing? How is
the role of charters in the education sector as a
whole evolving?
4. Most policies last 10 to 20 years before being
eclipsed by “the next big thing.” What does
the charter sector have to do in the next 5
years to assure its future?
Columbia University professor Jef‌f Henig makes
that critical observation that “[c]harters have become
concentrated in a small number of places—they don’t
go everywhere in large numbers . . . partly because the
CMO’s don’t want to go where the per pupil funding
isn’t high enough, where buildings/facilities are dif-
f‌i cult.”  is struck me as an accurate observation, but
is it really an indictment of charters, as it is a call to
state lawmakers around the country to rewrite unfair
charter laws that provide fewer dollars to charters than
their district-run counterparts?
ere is also charter godfather Bruno Manno’s view
of the connection between the organizations that
grant the authority to open new charter schools—
called authorizers—and the quality of charter schools
that come from them: “Authorizers have not been
fully responsible at closing schools down or improv-
ing them.” Perhaps authorizers have not moved as
quickly to close poorly performing charters as they
should, but a charter school authorizer is no better
positioned to improve the quality of a school than
Priscilla Wohlstetter, Joanna Smith, and Caitlin C.
Farrell, Choices and Challenges: Charter School
Performance in Perspective (Cambridge, MA;
Harvard Education Press, 2013). 232 pp. $29.95
(paper), ISBN: 9781612505411.
When he was struggling to open and build
the Boston Collegiate Charter School
in the 1990s, Brett Peiser, fresh out of
Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of
Government, wondered, in a bit of gallows humor,
whether some future graduate student would be writ-
ing a thesis on the noble but failed experiment known
as charter schools with a title something like “Charter
Schools in Massachusetts, 1993–2001.” His pessi-
mism about the future of schools like his was borne as
much from the buzz saw of political opposition that
charters faced as from the herculean task of creat-
ing and running a public school serving low-income
urban students without facilities f‌i nancing and with
less money per child than the public school down the
road run by the city.
Close to 20 years later, charter schools serve more
than a million and a half students in 42 states.  ey
enjoy the active support of a Democratic president
and his education secretary. Brett Peiser? He is the
chief executive of‌f‌i cer of the Uncommon network of
charter schools, which was recognized in 2013 by the
Broad Foundation for the excellence of its schools,
including the one he founded, Boston Collegiate. It
turns out that we do not have that graduate thesis
on the demise of charter schools to read, but instead,
we have a comprehensive survey of where a mature
and established charter school movement stands in
a new book by Priscilla Wohlstetter, Joanna Smith,
and Caitlin C. Farrell, Choices and Challenges: Charter
School Performance in Perspective.
is is a balanced volume that scrupulously includes
the perspectives of charter critics and advocates
alike.  ese perspectives are laid out in the penul-
timate chapter of the book and provide the most
Assessing 20 Years of Charter School Performance
Sonia M. Ospina and Rogan Kersh, Editors
Michael Thomas Duffy
Great Oaks Foundation

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