One of the common explanations for charter schools is that they combine an educational mission with a corporate sensibility. I have used this analogy many times to explain the way that market pressures keep us frosty. I live and work in a small corner of charter school market; but even there we have seen several charter schools close because they couldn’t retain enough students. Even the most successful charter schools can fail quickly if test scores or school budgets get out of balance. Even more to the point—parents who choose charter schools have already demonstrated their willingness to shop around. Every new school in the neighborhood puts pressure on the charter school ecosystem. The free-market model makes intuitive sense and matches the empirical evidence. It also accounts for the proliferation and emerging contraction in the for-profit sector of charter school management companies.
Still, the market model is limited. It doesn’t account for the reality that great educators consistently choose to join and stay with charter schools that pay well below market rates. In a market model, charter schools would have to settle for teachers in the low range of the performance band. Fortunately, charter schools defy market wisdom. The invisible hand is supplemented by a visible heart.
Here enters a second metaphor. Those who work at charter schools are less marketers than missionaries. Just as succeeding waves of Jesuits, mainline Protestants, and modern Evangelicals expanded the reach of Christendom, waves of founders, teachers, and leaders are pressing the cause of charter schools. If you are a selfless, student-centered educator with an abiding heart for helping students, you may find a great home in traditional or public charter schools. There are many mission-minded saints in all types of schools. If you are a self-serving pseudo-professional looking to lock in a gig with no real pressure to improve after year three years, you might find a home in a traditional public school. You will be surrounded by excellent and passionate teachers who resent your stagnation, but you will not be fired. In the traditional system, you will find a safe haven.
That is not true in the charter school ecosystem. The market pressures, lower salaries, and lack of long-term stability tend to weed out those who teach for their own benefit. Even those who must choose stability and increased financial prospects will self-select away from charter schools. That leaves us with a higher percentage of teachers who are motivated by idealism, altruism, relationships, and quality of life. On average, charter school teachers are still a much less experienced and younger population. In Colorado, the average experience of a charter school is about 55% as substantial as traditional public school teachers. (In fairness—this is partly a statistical artifact of the fact that the charter school universe is so young that there are no charter school teachers with 20 years of experience in charter schools. By contrast, many public school systems have an average teacher experience rating over 20 years.)
So, it is correct to note that charter schools blend educational and free market forces. But it is equally true to observe that charter school workers blend educational and missional characteristics. They are the closest things that education has to modern missionaries.