Are We Ready for Charter Colleges?

Editor’s Note: The Summer 2000 issue of Connection, NEJHE’s predecessor, included a series of pieces headlined “Charter Colleges: Evolution of a Plan,” exploring whether public colleges could operate more efficiently and produce higher quality educational results if they were freed from the controls imposed by state bureaucracies.

Community colleges are under increasing pressure today from a number of directions. Student demand is at an all-time high, fueled by demographics, student and employer need for new and increased skills; structural changes in labor markets have pushed the under- or unemployed to community colleges to acquire new job skills; and students who would have gone to four-year colleges are drawn to the lower-priced community colleges.

At the same time, community colleges face significant limitations in resources and institutional flexibility, as state and local aid has failed keep up with current needs, much less allow for growth.

Another serious handicap faced by community colleges is that state regulations on these two-year institutions, particularly in bellwether states like California, remain considerably more restrictive than they are for four-year institutions, while extensive and inflexible work rules limit institutional flexibility.

Even as recent U.S. presidents have urged Americans to obtain education beyond high school, community colleges are roundly criticized for lackluster student persistence and low graduation rates despite the fact that the proportion of entering students needing remedial work continues to increase.

Finally, we don’t really know how well community colleges are doing their job because, with few exceptions, there are no meaningful measures of student performance.

Lesson from K-12

One way forward from this situation may be to apply a reform that is bringing improvement to K-12 schools around the nation: the charter school movement, in which educational entrepreneurs and stakeholders establish and operate new schools for their communities.

Charter schools offer increased performance and accountability in exchange for autonomy and flexibility. The “charter” establishing each such school, defined by state law, is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment and ways to measure success. Most charter schools are established to increase operating autonomy, serve special groups, and/or realize an educational vision/mission. Like community colleges, charter-school enrollment is by choice. Charter schools typically do not offer tenure. They set their own compensation plans, have highly flexible work rules, encourage innovative educational practices and, most importantly, have a core mission of increasing opportunities for learning and access to quality education. This core mission is enforced with rigorous assessment of student learning.

Indeed, while much remains to be done to refine and assess the charter school movement in grades K-12, interest in the opportunities offered by this movement continues to grow. The number of charter schools in the United States has risen dramatically, from 50 in 1993 to over 5,000 in 2009, according to the Center for Educational Reform. Massachusetts, with its 65 charter schools enrolling nearly 26,000 students continues to be the leader in New England. Where a charter school differs from traditional education is in the flexibility and responsiveness of the organization to it mission and its heavy emphasis on rigorous assessment of learning.

Applied to CCs

In many respects, community colleges, with their open enrollment policies, share the charter school movement’s mission of increased educational opportunity for all students, particularly those who are socially or educationally disadvantaged or who have restricted educational options. Like many public K-12 schools, community colleges often face a diverse and sometimes daunting set of restrictions on their ability to accomplish their missions. Like most charter schools, community colleges are likely to serve minority, underrepresented and disadvantaged students, more so than other postsecondary institutions.

Community colleges are particularly vulnerable to a combination of restrictive operating options and, currently, reduced public funding, as states react to reduced revenues. In California, for example, community colleges operate under highly detailed statutes and operating policies, union work rules, and budgetary and administrative restrictions; state statutes governing community colleges run to 220 two-columned pages. (In contrast, the California State University system is governed by a mere 70 pages of laws and the University of California by only 25 pages, despite the fact that the state spends 9% more for the Cal State system than for the community colleges and 300% more for the UC system.) At the same time, community colleges are being asked to reduce annual operating expenditures by 12% to 18% in the face of reduced state support. Meanwhile, community college trustees are mired in regulatory detail. Rather than delegate minor decisions to college administrators, they are required to approve budget items such as student trips, student conference attendance, even expenditures under $200. The flipside of this highly micromanaged regulatory structure is that highly paid college presidents and other administrators have little decision-making authority and must seek trustee approval for decisions of trivial consequence.

Like many public schools that are under stress to perform in challenging circumstances, community colleges sometimes encounter perverse incentives, such as the need to reward faculty and staff based on seniority rather than productivity, and the need to follow onerous bureaucratic procedures in order to make simple decisions.

Assessment challenge

While assessment continues to challenge K-12 education, community colleges are even farther behind in meaningful assessment of student learning. For example, in California there is no standard measurement of student success among the state’s 112 community colleges. Rather, thousands of individual faculty members develop their own courses in their subjects and, using thousands of different tests, determine which students have learned the subject matter and can move on to the next level. There is no standard measure of what a student should know after completing introductory biology, college algebra, American History, or sociology. In short there are no hard measures of accountability. Instead, California measures success by how many students stay in the course until the end of the term (retention) and how many get a grade of C or better (academic success).

If a community college had the option to operate as a charter school, what might it do to directly address the needs of its students and measurably improve student success?

The primary advantages of the charter school model for a community college are the opportunity to improve accountability, efficiency, personnel policy and resource use. Accomplishing all these goals would involve assessment of not just learning outcomes, but also of institutional operations. And institutions would be better able to allocate resources to support these objectives.

Academic operations could benefit from a variety of inputs. These would include: re-envisioning assessment of educational outcomes through consultation with parties such as regional accreditors, state authorities and testing/assessment experts. Other innovations might include hiring institutional staff such as a dean of assessment to design cutting-edge entry and exit assessment measures and an expert in institutional research, who would, for example, create a new transcript with more detailed incoming and outgoing assessment scores. Additional reforms could incorporate articulation agreements with state institutions; the close evaluation and monitoring of dropouts and graduates (as well as time to degree completion); and perhaps cooperation with other institutions to create a curriculum that includes standardized “master courses” and hybrid (online and onsite) course delivery. Finally, a charter college could have flexible course offerings instead of standardized academic schedules. Courses can be made intensive in terms of both time and content, allowing students and faculty to focus directly and immediately on accomplishment of learning objectives and competencies, especially in basic skills and general education requirements.

At same time, operating costs can be assessed and revised using measures that are integrated with academic assessment practices. For example: instructors/faculty can be hired on five-year renewable contracts; faculty compensation and contractual arrangements can be based on measurable outcomes; and administrative and staff operations and expenses can be based on zero-based budgeting processes that incorporate student success measures. In addition, in light of evidence that committed faculty contribute to student persistence, faculty assignments could incorporate advising with teaching responsibilities, and make flexible but attractive (and cost-effective) work arrangements such as proportional positions (e.g. two-thirds or three-quarter time with proportional benefits) to attract instructors who are dedicated teachers. Administrators (and instructors) can be more entrepreneurial when resources are flexible, for example, having hiring, contractual and compensation flexibility with appropriate and identifiable incentives and expanded professional opportunities among instructional staff to support an institutional culture of vitality and mission-awareness.

In a society that needs more and better education, particularly in “grades 13 and 14,” the charter school model holds much promise for community colleges—those public institutions that serve communities and students by preparing students for employment and further education and, increasingly, provide students the opportunity to address educational needs not accomplished in K-12. The combination of improved accountability and autonomy in resource use that is the foundation of the charter school model allows for targeted educational efforts and clear institutional focus on student success. The flexibility of resource use built into the charter school model supports a continuing culture of dedication and vitality among faculty and staff—one that, in turn, supports student engagement and institutional effectiveness. The charter school model supports the best aspects of today’s community colleges and provides opportunity to improve their performance as they face increasing challenges and demands.


Jane Sjogren is an educator, economist and consultant. James Fay is academic vice president at Cerro Coso College in California.


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