08/27/2014 01:49 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

A New Way Forward in the Charter School Debate

As the debate between public charter and traditional neighborhood schools polarizes K-12 education, too many policymakers are succumbing to a false choice: either push for broad, fast charter expansion or double down on traditional school districts, even those that have chronically struggled. It's as if our only options are to let a thousand flowers bloom uncontrollably or trust that a calcified bureaucracy can educate all children to high levels.

In Georgia, however, a third way is emerging that offers schools the freedom and flexibilities that charter enthusiasts crave while preserving the benefits of operating in a traditional school district. By granting districts a broad waiver from state and local regulations, this "charter system" model puts decision making into the hands of local school governance councils, rather than bureaucrats in the state capital or district office.

Made up of parents, educators and local community members, these councils create authentic school-home-community partnerships that take ownership for their school's strategic plan, budget and curriculum. At the same time, schools still reap the benefits of being part of a large, established organization, maintaining access to critical supports like high-quality facilities, end-to-end information technology and system-wide emergency management services.

It's not just charter leaders who seek this kind of autonomy. According to a recent MetLife survey, 9 out of 10 school principals nationwide believe that they "should be held accountable for everything that happens to the children in his or her school." Yet only about 2 out of 10 say they have a great deal of control in critical areas such as budgeting.

It is an over simplification to say the core of the problem is simply that district central offices have run amok, crazed with power, seeking to control every school decision through an unhealthy mix of paternalism and risk-aversion. Like most intractable issues, the challenge is more cultural and systematic. A recent study by CRPE polled principals in three states who cited 128 barriers that limit them from doing what is right for their schools. But when the researchers further investigated, they found that only about one-third of these barriers were, in fact, real. Instead, the entrenched culture of compliance in school systems has led school leaders to believe they have no control. As it turns out, if you hear "no" often enough, you begin to expect it.

This is why the charter system model holds so much promise. When school governance councils have an explicit waiver from top-down policy, the culture shifts to one of shared ownership, building an individualized plan for their school that is truly focused on meeting the unique needs of their students and community. That doesn't mean that district central offices should "go away." Instead, they can be re-imagined to focus on the supports and accountability that ensure public trust and allow educators the freedom to focus on what matters most -- educating our students.