Charter Schools as a Catalyst for Building Civic Capacity

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Civic capacity—the notion of multiple sectors of the community coming together in concerted action to address big issues—has been examined by education reformers and researchers who argue it is critical to making systemic and long lasting improvements in the public education system. It has been suggested that public charter schools do a great job of engaging parents, educators, community groups, and philanthropists in individual schools. But charter school critics raise the lingering question: is the charter school model serving the greater public good in terms of efforts to improve all public schools?

Sure, larger entities like traditional school districts or cities are positioned to engage with a wide array of public and private actors in collective commitments to reform school systems. However, despite a markedly smaller scale, charter schools are not isolated institutions with limited connections to the larger public education system. Rather, charter schools are public schools that open pathways for non-traditional groups to get involved in operating schools. And charter schools can be (and have been) used within school districts and cities to provide new opportunities to mobilize large-scale civic engagement.

In cities like New Orleans, D.C., and Philadelphia, charter schools have served as catalysts for building civic capacity through strategically engaging community leaders to operate charter schools. In New York, authorizers are actively recruiting existing organizations that provide services to high-needs students to found charter schools.

Or take Indianapolis. A new study describes in detail the way in which government officials, business leaders, local philanthropists, university scholars, and local educators identified big problems—a declining economy and dismal education outcomes—and then coalesced around charter schools to meet the needs of the community. The strategy was not about any specific charter school, but about creating a new landscape for public education where community support for public education was put into practice. 

These cities show that charter schools can be used to mobilize civic engagement for the greater good of the public education system. And current trends show this work is being cultivated to expand mutual impact and quality of traditional and public charter schools.

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