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Charter schools are the Justin Bieber of education reform – a fad gone too far

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If we want charter schools to work, we must be careful to resist the “idea faddism” that so often turns tomorrow’s innovation into yesterday’s failed idea. This means avoiding the urge to go all-in with federal funds during what should be a period of continued experimentation.

US love affair with charter schools

The recent American love affair with charter schools is well documented. In 1991, Minnesota passed groundbreaking legislation to create the first charter school in the nation, with the first opening its door a year later. Now there are more than 5,000 charter schools nationwide.

Public support for these schools is also widespread, with vocal champions from both sides of the aisle. While few issues have unified the last three presidents, charter schools is one of them. President Clinton set a target of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2000 in his 1997 State of the Union address, and President Bush sought $200 million in federal funds to support them.

Obama has outdone them both. Not only has he included hundreds of millions in charter school carrots through his budget proposals, but he has also wielded a big charter school stick through the Race to the Top Program. A state’s willingness to foster charter schools was considered a critical reform element in its bid for a share in the original $4 billion Race to the Top program. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made clear at the time, “States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund.”

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