Meet the Authors of “Charter Schools at the Crossroads”
Just a decade after the nation’s first charter school law was signed, education analysts Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Bruno Manno published their first book on charter schools, “Charter Schools in Action.” Today, as the country’s first charter school law turns 25, Manno (now at the Walton Family Foundation), Finn and Brandon Wright (both at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) release a new book, “Charter Schools at the Crossroads.” Published by Harvard Education Press, the book takes a close look at charter schools’ triumphs and failures — as well as at what’s next for the movement.
We chatted with the authors to get to know them, to learn what drew them to charter schools and to see what’s kept them hooked for a quarter century.
CHESTER E. FINN, JR.
Senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution
Chester Finn attended a mix of public and private schools growing up. As an adult, he sent his children to a similar mix of schools where he thought they’d get the best possible education.
“It galls my soul that poor families and many middle class families don’t have these options,” he said, adding, “Charters are one of the ways of providing them with similar options that they can afford.”
When still in college, President Johnson inspired Finn to work education policy, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan advised him as he studied it during graduate school.
From the start, he said, charters were able to innovate and pioneer different approaches, serving as an “R&D center” for public education.” They also promised to provide teachers with independence to run schools without interference from the school bureaucracy. And they created an “educational refuge” for kids who never before had options.
He said the greatest success of charters has been the “no excuses” model, which has changed the lives of disadvantaged students. He said the biggest opportunity for charter schools in the next 25 years is to meet the needs of different populations — from gifted students to special education students to students with particular passions, like technology or Latin.
Senior Advisor, Walton Family Foundation, K-12 Education Program
Bruno Manno first became interested in education in college when he began to wonder how young people developed an ethical sense.
It was clear, he said, that families played a big role, as did community and religious organizations. But it was the role that schools could play in building social capital that attracted him to this work, and what has kept him hooked over more than three decades.
Manno said he’s found that the power of schools to pass on values and help young people develop an ethnical sense is enhanced when choice is involved — families form “voluntary associations” by choosing their schools. Manno was working at the U.S. Department of Education when Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, and he was immediately interested in chartering because it made voluntary association possible within the public school system.
He said one of the most remarkable accomplishments of charter schools over their 25 years has been attracting talent that never would have pursued careers in the traditional district system. He said this core of talented newcomers has worked to generate an entirely new sector of public schools.
“It’s really pretty remarkable that public education, which has been primarily based on the district model for a couple hundred years, has, in twenty-five short years, created an entirely new second sector called the charter sector,” he said.
Going forward, Manno said charter schools will continue to expand and improve by making progress on resolving issues under two broad categories: issues related to the “technology of chartering” including such issues as common enrollment and accountability systems, information for parents and taxpayers, and authorizing, and more “visceral issues,” including conversations around race, community, and human capital.
“Any long term conversation in this space that doesn’t deal with the visceral issues won’t succeed,” he said.
Editorial Director, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Brandon Wright was drawn to charter schools through his work clerking for a law firm representing Washington, D.C. students with special needs.
“I learned that traditional public schools don’t work for a significant number of students, especially disadvantaged ones,” he said.
He sees charter schools as an important way to give students high-quality educational options.
“Charter schools are one of the best ways to improve American education at scale,” he said. “What they’ve done in their short history is remarkable. They aren’t perfect, but the charter sector has the capacity to replicate what works, fix what doesn’t, and continue to innovate and expand.”