The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Charter School Funding Problems

As with vouchers, many pundits tout charter schools as the fix for public education. With vouchers, I worry that private schools will be homogenized and leveled to a public school standard, in the long run, because of government oversight and consequent regulation.

Charter schools can always face that problem, too, but they face a more imminent one with public funding. Read about it in Kevin Ferris's article in the Wall Street Journal reporting on the financial tenuousness of charter schools.


RJO said...

You might be interested in this recent post as well: From Charter Schools to Charter Colleges?

I compare the movement to establish charter schools with the movement to establish decentralized residential colleges (house systems) within larger universities. This is an analogy, not an identity, and there are important differences. But many of the motivating elements are similar, including a belief that breaking up centralized bureaucracies is usually a good thing. While in the US all residential college systems have been created within existing universities (and so still partake of centralization in that respect), it is entirely possible to create independent, non-profit residential colleges -- co-curricular, educational, residential membership societies -- in proximity to university campuses and to manage them as self-perpetuating charitable organizations. I point to a few existing successful examples as models.

This is how the Oxford-Cambridge colleges were established centuries ago. Perhaps that ancient pattern is due for a revival.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

That's an interesting comparison. Breaking up centralized systems into liveable components is an important step towards making higher - and lower - education more successful in truly educating students.

My worry is that charter schools, under government bureaucracies, will not be able to flourish in the long run due to governmental control pressures. The purpose of government bureaucracies is basically at odds with the goals and needs of students.

Jerry Kirkpatrick has an informative section on this issue in his book, Montessori,Dewey, and Capitalism,

Am I understanding you to say that the English universities were started first, then residential colleges were opened as independent organizations which then developed a relationship to the universities?

RJO said...

"My worry is that charter schools, under government bureaucracies, will not be able to flourish in the long run due to governmental control pressures."

Yes indeed, and that's a point where my analogy of charter schools and charter colleges doesn't match. The charter (residential) college idea I proposed was for residential societies that would be genuinely independent and not part of the university bureaucracy. In that sense they're just private organizations. But the similarity is that they exist in association with an existing university, which is their reason for coming into being in the first place.

"Am I understanding you to say that the English universities were started first, then residential colleges were opened as independent organizations which then developed a relationship to the universities?"

Yes, more or less. The university predates any of the existing colleges, and the colleges were established as independent private residences to provide food and lodging for students studying for university degrees. Over time (centuries) these private bodies did take on some teaching functions, but the awarding of degrees and the giving of examinations is and has always been solely a university function.

A modern comparison might be a fictional future for a place like UMass Boston (which I'm somewhat familiar with). It was established in the 1960s as a new urban university with no residences. The thinking was that people living anywhere in the city could come there to take classes. Well, in some sense this is what happens. But one could also imagine, over a hundred years or so, people getting together to buy or build charitable housing for poor students who wanted to live next to the campus -- perhaps students who lived far away. As a self-perpetuating corporate entity, such a boarding house -- a residential college -- would develop its own character over time. Over two or three hundred years one can imagine a dozen such residential houses being established, all independent of the university proper, which continues to provide lectures and award degrees. And over another couple hundred years one can imagine these residential societies hiring tutors to help students prepare for exams, improve their writing, etc. And generous alumni of these houses donate books to form libraries in each house, and so on. Eventually one can imagine UMass Boston being surrounded and intermingled with dozens of these independent houses. That's pretty much just what the thirty-plus Oxford colleges are.

From a structural point of view, the important point is that residential houses of this type could be freely created by anyone -- all you need is the money to do it. They could be nothing more than an apartment building of course, run as a business -- nothing wrong with that, but it's not of any particular educational interest. But, it would also be possible to create such a residential house as a non-profit educational organization -- a residential college -- that had important co-curricular educational elements built in, to support teaching with-out the curriculum.

It's not hypothetical, and examples do exist -- I point to some in my original post. But I think it's an under-replicated model, one that offers a way out of many current problems of university residential life and education.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

Thanks for a very informative comment!

alan arsht said...

I would be interested in providing the design, construction and financing services for the residential colleges you mention through my company, M Space Holdings (based in NYC)which has a national capability in this general area. I am open to exploring the level of interest in such a venture but would need help in identifying a test university and assembling the right people in a working group.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

Mr. Arsht,

I wasn't sure if you were speaking to me or RJO - let me know.

alan arsht said...

Actually, I was making a comment to both or either. I will need help in understanding how to test the financial feasibility of residential colleges (through support from alumni or other sources) in the arkly years, while the cultural traditions evolve.