How Charter Colleges Can Rekindle Innovation

Michael Block

Editor’s Introduction: On March 24, 2000, NAS Chairman Steve Balch, together with University of Arizona economics professor emeritus Michael K. Block, published this article on the concept of charter college-creation in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required to access the archived original). Nine years later, Robert Koons, our Texas affiliate president and professor of philosophical logic at the University of Texas, has taken up the idea in his recent article in the Clarion Call recounting UT Austin’s attack on him and his Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions. Professor Koons writes that charter colleges could be an antidote to the rejection of similar programs in the future:  

One idea, which state legislators could implement, is the creation of “charter colleges” within existing state universities. The state could authorize groups of three or more professors, together with a private foundation or even a for-profit sponsor, to propose charters for innovative programs like ours. If its charter were approved by an outside board, a charter college would be authorized to offer specific courses to satisfy designated components of the state’s core, as well as certificates, minors, and majors. Faculty in the rest of the university would not control the decisions of the charter college.

With his fresh introduction of the idea, we present a reprint of Dr. Balch and Dr. Block’s article in hopes that it will animate for today’s readers their vision for American charter colleges.

How Charter Colleges Can Rekindle Innovation

By Stephen H. Balch and Michael K. Block

Charter schools are about freedom: the freedom of parents to choose an elementary or secondary school with a curriculum and standards that best serve the needs of their child, and the freedom of teachers and administrators to concentrate on education unburdened by cumbersome bureaucratic controls. The appeal of freedom, and its many advantages, explains why elementary and secondary charter schools are proliferating so rapidly across the country.

Higher education and its constituencies also could benefit from such freedom. The time has come for us to consider applying the same notion to postsecondary education. Why not charter colleges?

The charter-college concept, under a different name, was formulated in 1997 by Stanley Koplik, chancellor of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, who died early this year. He argued that freeing selected public universities and colleges from most state regulation would enable them to become models of efficient management. In January, the Boston-based Pioneer Institute released an analysis of the benefits of converting existing institutions to explicit "charter status."

The idea is a good one, but it doesn't go far enough. Some public institutions might seize an invitation to innovate, but most are too hamstrung by convoluted governance procedures and vested interests to make much use of it. Charter-school laws work precisely because they permit the circumvention of entrenched educational hierarchies. Charter colleges should work the same way, opening the door to bottom-up academic initiatives.

Public-university systems, especially in the West, are like their public-school counterparts: They have a near monopoly over affordable education. Unfortunately, although public universities are often superb research centers, they leave much to be desired as centers for undergraduate teaching.

Most public universities have tenure and promotion rules that reward faculty members for little more than publishing in academic journals. Most have swollen administrative budgets and employ legions of staff members who contribute virtually nothing to what goes on inside the classroom. Most have byzantine, often secretive decision-making processes. And most have special programs that cater to narrow constituencies and drain resources away from general education.

We should have revisited all of those practices long ago, but bureaucratic inertia and organizational rigidity stymied any such attempts. Without greater institutional flexibility, progress will be painfully slow at best. Innovation would be unshackled if we could organize charter colleges on the campuses of our public-university systems -- where they would have access to dormitories, gymnasiums, libraries, and laboratories -- or as free-standing institutions.

Since the early 1990's, many states have passed laws allowing elementary- and secondary-level charter schools. Similar laws for postsecondary institutions would permit motivated individuals to design degree-granting programs. Groups of professors would probably make up the largest class of charter applicants, but others, including both nonprofit and for-profit institutions, could also play a role in founding or operating colleges. To ensure maximum flexibility and ability to enter the market, a college might be chartered in more than one way: by either an existing state-university system or a new statewide college-chartering entity created expressly for that purpose.

Like charter schools, charter colleges would have a claim on state resources and campus facilities commensurate with their ability to attract students. Each year, they would receive a per-student payment equal to the average cost of undergraduate education in the conventional institutions.

Unlike charter schools, however, charter colleges should be able to charge tuition in addition to the support they receive from their states. To keep charter colleges on the same financial footing as their conventional counterparts, that tuition could be limited -- perhaps to no more than the most expensive public college or university in each state. In addition, like traditional institutions, charter colleges should be allowed to solicit private philanthropy.

As with charter schools, the states and their agencies would retain some degree of overall supervision. They could deny charters to frivolous programs, prescribe threshold enrollments, and define required faculty expertise. In addition, chartering agencies should require chartered institutions to guarantee academic freedom and to prohibit racial and gender discrimination in admissions and hiring.

Yet the opportunities for flexibility and creativity at charter colleges would far surpass those found at public universities today. The architects of a charter-college program could devise their own systems of governance. They would have wide latitude in making personnel decisions and determining teaching loads. They could operate with as trim an administrative structure as possible. (Given their likely operating efficiency, successful charter colleges would probably provide useful baselines against which the cost-effectiveness of other university programs could be measured.) Most important, they could design their own curriculum, as long as it met the minimum requirements of the existing state-university system.

And, undoubtedly, the curricula of many such programs would far exceed the modest requirements typical of state institutions. Charter colleges could offer students enriched encounters with serious subject matter they would otherwise miss.

Studies of undergraduate curricula done by the National Association of Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others have revealed the skimpy nature of general-education requirements at many of our colleges and universities. Few subjects are specified, orderly progressions are usually ignored, and intellectual coherence is virtually unknown. The search for higher student registrations accounts for some of this; lowest-common-denominator resolutions of academic turf wars explain much of the rest.

Neither would be a problem had the strong sense of purpose that once infused liberal education not largely disappeared. With a revived sense of that purpose -- and with students who want more out of their education than is typically delivered -- charter colleges could restore to undergraduate education the coherence, distinctiveness, and intellectual imagination that it has lost, while retaining freedom of choice for students.

Some charter-college programs might provide only the first two years of an undergraduate's education, allowing a student to undertake upper-division specialized studies outside the charter college later. Other programs might be totally integrated four-year Great Books colleges, or programs organized around particular intellectual themes.

Charter colleges could, of course, be as much an opportunity for multicultural educators as for traditional ones. Thematic programs could focus as readily on cultural diversity and questions of distributive justice as on individual liberty or transcendent values. Programs could also be designed with professional goals in mind, emphasizing those elements of liberal education that might be of special relevance to someone embarking on a career in science, business, medicine, or criminal justice. Each program would have a chance to compete and find -- or not find -- its niche.

Charter colleges would benefit faculty members as well as students. Under current institutional arrangements, faculty decision-making usually takes place within departments. Although that approach works well for ensuring the professional integrity of specialized programs, it usually impedes efforts to foster larger academic goals. By allowing cross-disciplinary coalitions of faculty members to design and implement programs with broad-based aims, the charter-college option could markedly enhance the possibilities of faculty self-governance.

Such a widened expression of creative energies need not be confined to general education. A variety of specialized fields have sunk so deeply into intellectual decrepitude that they cannot be revived solely from within. A prime example: teacher training, long criticized for its inattention to -- and often denigration of -- competence in subject matter, as well as its partiality to trivial pedagogical techniques. Firmly set in their ways, teacher-training programs are unlikely to change, absent fresh sources of competition.

The very subject-matter competencies they slight, however, are most exuberantly represented among the rest of the faculty. Chartered normal schools, sprouting up on campus after campus, could provide just the competition required. If the knowledge-rich graduates of those programs went on to secure the best classroom jobs, a revolution in teacher training might well be set in motion.

To be sure, the most challenging charter colleges would probably grow to only a modest size. But at least they could offer an outstanding education to the students who most truly wanted, and could profit from, such a challenge. With imaginative and rigorous curricula, charter colleges might also prove to be an additional source of well-educated employees for rapidly growing, high-tech, information-intensive industries.

Most important, charter colleges would revitalize all of higher education by providing competitive, creative, and energetic alternatives to our existing bureaucracy-bound institutions.

Today, in American undergraduate education, we struggle with decayed standards, ideological uniformity, and the impoverishment of liberal learning. The time is long overdue for governors, legislators, state higher-education commissions, trustees, and others to consider charter schools as models for rekindling innovation at our colleges and universities. If we encouraged rival programs to compete freely for students and resources through the creation of charter colleges, we would go a long way toward solving our problems.

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