06/26/2012 02:35 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

Looking Forward: The Charter School Challenge

Early in my professional career while working as a jury trial lawyer I tried many cases in D.C. Federal court. As fate would have it, the late judge Harold Greene who was presiding over one of my many trials was also working with a host of lawyers on the consent decree which led to the breakup of AT&T, commonly referred to "Ma Bell." Following one of their negotiation sessions, as the telecom lawyers were leaving his chambers, Judge Greene said to me and my opposing counsel, "Monopolies just don't work. Do you know that Ma Bell has several innovations in place, including video conferencing, that they haven't offered to the public because they are waiting for the right time? ... The public needs access to other providers so they will have more innovative telephone options."

"My main concern," Judge Greene said further, "is that these new service providers eventually become the same animal as companies like AT&T."

I thought about Judge Greene's words last week at the National Charter School Conference. Nearly 4,000 people descended on Minneapolis, Minnesota for this event which was particularly special since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota 20 years ago. It was great to see so many reform-minded educators, policy makers and community activists, all committed to the education of our children, in attendance. However, as with any movement for change, the 20th anniversary of charter schools should also signal a time for all of us to reflect on where the charter movement is today and where it needs to go in the future.

There are now over 5,600 charter schools, serving two million children in 41 states and the District of Columbia.  And, for the most part, these schools are serving our children well. But when charter schools aren't performing as well as they should, unlike traditional schools, there is a means to shut them down. Whether a school is public, private or charter, if it's low performing then it must be closed. And, several myths around charters schools remain, such as: they only take the best students, they don't serve kids with special needs, and they don't perform as well as traditional public schools still remain. Charter schools are in fact public schools, the majority are high performing and they must accept all children within their capacity.  Yet while there is a lot of angst around the charter school movement, we can't ignore the fact that children have benefitted greatly from the introduction of charter schools.

Just as the break-up of Ma Bell forced us to look at an unfair monopoly within the telecommunications industry, charters schools have forced all of us to re-examine our education service delivery model. Similar to technology boom of the '90s, which brought us Microsoft, Sprint, AOL, Apple and others, American citizens are increasingly becoming better informed education "consumers" and as was the case with AT&T so many years ago, the one size model no longer fits all. Charter schools, specialty schools, magnet schools, private schools and other options provide differing and unique models that address our kids' individual needs.

That being said, bureaucracy begets bureaucracy. It happened with the telecommunications industry, and I am fearful that it will happen within the education reform movement. Our telecom industry has gotten so big that the largest service providers are slowly but surely becoming laser focused on profit, the ability to scale up for bigger impact, and squeezing out the competition, all the while forgetting about the importance of quality customer service. Similarly, folks in the charter school movement seem to have forgotten that the origins of the movement were based on putting thriving "Mom and Pop" schools in place that could serve neighborhood needs better than the bureaucracy-laden local school districts.

While the conference was full of discussions about scalability and replication -- mind you all important topics to the growth and sustainability of this movement -- we cannot ignore the fact that 20 years later, it is increasingly difficult for a single charter school to get started. Today, without a proven track record, the right funders and properly credentialed principal and staff, it's almost impossible to get a charter school approved. Is there an "enemy within"? What happened to the idea of one great educator with the knowledge, skills and ability to work with parents and the community to build a great school in a chosen neighborhood?

At their very core, charter schools were formed to help children obtain a quality education to extricate them out of the cycle of poverty. My fear is that the charter school movement will end up being that which we fight against: a bureaucracy driven system with overstated requirements that place more significance on preserving the system than ensuring that every child has access to a quality education. This may seem harsh, but charter school advocates and leaders must remember why they joined the education reform movement in the first place -- innovation, creativity, and accountability for all children. And if those education reformers need a blatant reminder to steer them away from a bureaucratic mindset, all they need to do is call Sprint customer service and see how long they are placed on hold.