A Gamble

Can Charter Schools Fix Public Education?

Even as he battles economic woes at home and security threats abroad, President Barack Obama is advancing a bold strategy for improving the nation’s schools. His new budget aims to recast Washington’s role in education, shedding the regulatory minutiae of the No Child Left Behind Act put in place by George W. Bush.

Instead, Obama is banking on economic incentives to alter the behavior of educators. Armed with $4.3 billion in stimulus funding, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is pushing states to award bonuses to effective teachers, curtail the power of teachers unions, and seed a more robust generation of charter schools.

This competition- and incentive-based approach to reform is partly drawn from the playbook of moderate Republicans a generation ago. But it’s Obama’s faith in charter schools—which are financed by taxpayers but operated outside the strictures of the normal public-school system—that’s proving most controversial. To some, charters are the key to reforming public education by increasing flexibility and accountability at the local level. Others feel the promotion of charters diverts attention from public-school systems’ most intractable problems. And while the number of charter schools nationwide continues to grow, the evidence of their success remains inconclusive. Obama’s approach ensures that more charters will be established. But it can’t guarantee that they’ll work.

Enthusiasts see charters as a fix for schools suffocated by...

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About the Author

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Inside Charter Schools (Harvard) and Standardized Childhood (Stanford).