CharterFolk Contributor Jim Goenner: For Chartering Leaders Pursuing Excellence, It’s a Future of Opportunity

Greetings, Charter Folk.

Today we are delighted to share a contributor column from Jim Goenner, President & CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute.

I provide a bio for Jim below.

Jim Goenner serves as President & CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute, a mission driven non-profit organization dedicated to democratizing excellence in education. The Institute is home to Epicenter, the National Charter Schools Founders Library, and works with schools, governing boards, and authorizing agencies. 

Jim joined the charter schools movement in 1995 and was inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame in 2010. Prior to joining the Institute, Jim served as the Executive Director of The Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, where he led the first and largest university authorizer of charter public schools in the nation. Under his leadership, CMU became known as the “gold standard” for charter school authorizing, earning recognition from both the U.S. and Michigan Departments of Education.

Jim helped found and chaired the board of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers. He helped found and served as the first President of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which serves as the unified voice of Michigan’s charter schools movement. Jim currently serves on the board of the Charter Schools Development Corporation, which specializes in helping charter schools with their facility and financing needs

Jim has testified before numerous policymaking bodies, including the United States Congress, and was invited by the U.S. Department of Education to serve on the advisory board of the National Charter Schools Resource Center. He has received gubernatorial appointments from Governors John Engler and Jennifer Granholm. He earned his doctorate in educational administration from Michigan State University and has authored numerous articles, including “Charter Schools: Revitalizing Public Education,” which appeared in Phi Delta Kappan and “Michigan’s Chartering Strategy,” which appeared in Education Next.

Jim and his wife, Theresa, have seven children and two grandchildren.

I want to thank Jim for the work he put into his thoughtful piece regarding charters turning 30.  Let’s get  straight to his post!

For Chartering Leaders Pursuing Excellence, It’s a Future of Opportunity

I often refer to charter schools as miracles. This is not because every charter school will serve students miraculously well, but rather, as the proverbial David taking on Goliath, it’s a miracle charters even exist.

As the strategy of chartering turns 30 this year, a careful look at its original premise can help us see how we are delivering on its promises and chart our direction forward in our quest to help all kids succeed.  

Disrupting the Injustice of Students Being Taken for Granted

The strategy for improving public education via chartering began in Minnesota. In a 1990 article titled, “The States Will Have to Withdraw the Exclusive,” Ted Kolderie suggested it was hopeless for lawmakers to continue trying to “improve existing schools within existing arrangements.”

“The existing arrangement has been…a checkerboard pattern of districts financed by taxes and appropriations, each with an ‘exclusive franchise’ to offer public education within its boundaries. With customers required by law to use the service and assigned to the organization serving their ‘district,’ such an arrangement effectively guarantees the organizations and the people in them most everything important to their material success: their enrollments, their revenues, their jobs, their incomes—and their existence.”

Kolderie believed this ‘regulated public-utility’ model had become immune to change and improvement. He described an endless exchange of money for promises: policymakers demanding improvements, districts promising to improve…but nothing significant ever really changing. Sounds like the definition of insanity to me.

To access Kolderie’s writings and learn more about the origins and evolution of chartering, visit the National Charter Schools Founders Library,

Chartering: A New Strategy for Lawmakers

As frustrations with the inability of districts to change mounted, Kolderie argued lawmakers needed to find a new strategy – one that would disrupt the monopoly, change the incentives, and protect students from being taken for granted.

This new strategy became known as chartering. At its core, chartering is a “disruptive innovation.” It disrupts outdated notions – like a community must rely on only one provider of public education and that districts own the kids and get to assign them to schools – even if the schools are dysfunctional.

Chartering created a process whereby new entrants like authorizing agencies, governing boards, and school operators could become players in their states’ public educational system and receive public funding. This gave the charter schools movement a seat at the table from which the givens could be challenged and the status quo disrupted.

Chartering brought a two-part challenge to the educational bureaucracy. First, it enabled new public schools to be established which empowered students, families, and educators to vote with their feet. Second, it created a proving ground where old ideas could be questioned and new ideas and approaches could be tried.

Some schools embraced the challenge and made changes to encourage students to stay. Others remained incalcitrant and insisted charters were not “real” public schools. They used their time, money, and energy to deny problems and dismiss the need for change. As charter legislation made its way through statehouses, they would try to kill it. If this didn’t work, they shifted to cap and contain strategies, and often inserted provisions that would make chartering unworkable.

Challenging Incumbents Requires Persistence and Fortitude

Newcomers to our movement often feel dismayed by the relentless attacks against both charter schools and the charter strategy. This is what happens when you are courageous enough to challenge Goliath. This also explains why we must endure a regular cadence of charter school hit pieces masquerading as research, along with an onslaught of political, legal, and regulatory attacks. Think of it this way – established political incumbents do not willingly cede their office to upstart candidates, nor do they embrace discussions about the need for change. We should not expect things to be different for chartering.

The good news is that the strategy of chartering has now been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. There are many reasons for this growth, but the most important one is self-evident – more and more families are choosing charter schools for their children. This means the pressure on some districts that have refused to adapt is reaching a breaking point. Federal relief dollars are masking problems and delaying pain. Over half the students have already left some districts. Reduced birthrates and Covid induced relocations will only accentuate their pain. What to do with unused and underused buildings will dominate discussions and distract from the real issue of how districts can become the responsive and adaptive organizations that our kids, communities, and country need.

The Ecosystem Matters

The challenges facing public education are stark indeed – from navigating Covid, disengaged students, daunting social-emotional problems, learning loss, talent, and staffing issues, to overbearing regulations and endless paperwork – not to mention the toll the culture wars are having on everyone, especially those responsible for governing and leading.

There are no quick fixes for these problems and most are beyond the control of individual schools. For chartering, this means schools, governing boards, and authorizing agencies are going to need to communicate and coordinate in new ways. With so many people feeling overwhelmed and out of ideas, it is also a time for our movement to shift our mindset. We need to think bigger than justifying our right to exist and proving our legitimacy as “real” public schools.

Our times require new ideas, new strategies, and new leaders. The thinkers and doers who have made the charter strategy work have lived at the intersection of policy and practice. The lessons learned about what works and what doesn’t can benefit all. The strategies associated with chartering can help forge a path forward for all.

Raising the Bar and Bringing People Together

Despite the challenges facing us, we must not lower our expectations. Rigor needs to be valued and excellence recognized and rewarded. The credibility of chartering as a strategy for improving public education will only grow as we deliver on our promises to improve results for both students and taxpayers. That’s why we must continuously raise the bar and encourage the passionate pursuit of excellence. Our hallmarks of excellence must include successful students, fiscal stewardship, operational integrity, honest management, and wise governance.

Any strategy going forward must bring people together around core principles, like recognizing the authority to operate a public school is a privilege, not a right. We need to address how to deal with schools that are unwilling or unable to perform. All schools, not just charters, should be held to account for dysfunction and poor performance. This means some schools will need to be overhauled or closed. To me, that’s part of disrupting the status quo and ensuring students can no longer be taken for granted.

America is the Real Experiment

As the charter strategy transitions education from an era of assignment to an era of choice, it is important to remind ourselves that exemplary leaders model the way and empower others to act. Fundamentally, I see our movement as a leadership movement. It’s a movement that unifies a diverse group of people around a common cause – ensuring all kids get the education and support they deserve.

Ultimately, I like to think of America, not charters, as the real experiment. An experiment in self-governance and responsibility. “We the People” seeking “to form a more perfect union” and ensuring “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

But much like America, the path for the first 30 years of charters was cut by pioneers, revolutionary thinkers and some very wise founders. I look forward to seeing our movement grow and mature in the years ahead, with new leaders taking on the challenge of finding the next great education strategies.  

So, let’s GO CharterFolk! If not us, who? If not now, when? Together, we can do this!