Charter Schools Expose Educational Fault Lines

Published February 1, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the second of a seven-part series showing why charter schools do not have the freedom they need to create significant educational improvements through innovation.

Reforming education requires thinking outside the box–but wherever originality exists, controversy is sure to follow. That was certainly the case at Moreno Valley High School (MVHS) of Angel Fire, New Mexico.

As in many states with charter schools, in order to get the legislation passed against the resistance of existing public school interests, it was necessary not to cede too much power. This is the first lesson in “seeing like a state” in order to understand the government: Legislatures everywhere are beholden to existing interest groups.

Although it is popular to rail against “corporate special interests,” in a state like New Mexico the public school establishment–teachers’ unions, administrators’ unions, state school board associations, athletic associations, etc.–is collectively a formidable special interest. These organizations strongly resist any move that takes funding out of their control. And charter schools do exactly that, because they are funded through the principle of “let the money follow the child.”

In New Mexico, which has a complex statewide equalization of funding formula, the roughly $7,000 per pupil the state normally supplies to each district-run public school goes instead to a charter school in each case where a student chooses to leave a district school in order to attend a charter.

As a consequence, therefore, in most states charter school legislation is severely compromised in favor of the school districts. In New Mexico, for example, each charter school must be authorized by the district in which it is located, a senseless conflict of interest that instantly puts every charter school under the supervision of an entity with a vested interest in its failure.

In the case of MVHS, Cimarron School District was adamantly opposed to its existence every step of the way.

School Was Largest Employer

Cimarron is a small town 40 miles away from the town of Angel Fire through a winding canyon road. The residents of Angel Fire, a growing ski resort community, had long been frustrated that their children had to ride the bus for an hour or more in order to attend school in Cimarron. Meanwhile, Cimarron was a shrinking–some say dying–community in which the timber mill had just shut down. The school district was the largest remaining employer.

The potential loss of half the students, and half the funding, of a small town high school was perceived as a life-or-death issue in Cimarron.

After the Cimarron District rejected the MHVS charter application in the fall of 2002, the group of parents who had founded the school appealed to the State Board of Education. Nearly 50 Angel Fire residents drove the two hours to Santa Fe to testify on behalf of the need for a high school in Angel Fire. Although the Cimarron District argued the budget and other aspects of the MVHS charter were simply unworkable, the state board passed the charter with only a few minor changes.

Paideia Expert Preferred

It is sometimes said starting a charter school is like starting a business, running an uphill political campaign, and running a highly regulated social services agency … all at once. Most of those who have actually established charter schools would agree.

Starting a charter school is starting a business; because of the hostility of local districts, it also includes the equivalent of running an uphill political campaign; and because of the heavy requirements of state supervision, it involves running a highly regulated social services agency. The wonder is not that some charter schools fail; it is that any succeed at all.

The MVHS charter specified it was to be based on the Paideia educational program. Paideia, started by Mortimer Adler in the early 1980s, emphasized education as a broad introduction to contemporary culture and society in a manner similar to the educational vision of Plato and Aristotle–“paideia” being the term classical Greeks used to refer to education.

One of MVHS’s founders had attended St. John’s College in Santa Fe with Michael Strong, the author of this article, 20 years earlier. She had read about his work in education in an alumni publication, and he consulted with her on the charter in an informal capacity. After the charter passed, she encouraged him to apply for the position of director.

Divergent Opinions Arose

Among other evidences of Strong’s qualifications, Dennis Gray, an original member of the original Paideia Group responsible for developing the Paideia program, had described Strong’s book on Socratic methods as the best book written on implementing Paideia in the classroom. No other applicant had even a superficial familiarity with the Paideia approach.

Strong had 15 years of experience in K-12 education, starting as a public school reformer and then founding several private schools and programs at private schools over the past 13 years. Throughout that period, he had never obtained an education credential. His strengths were as a classroom practitioner, a teacher trainer in Socratic pedagogy, and as a visionary educational leader. Day-to-day management was not his strength.

Thus there is a sense in which it was accurate, through the eyes of the state, for him to be seen as “an uncertified, incompetent administrator,” and another sense in which it was correct for the parents, students, and community members who supported the school to view him as “an experienced administrator whose innovative pedagogy had been recognized by leading national experts.”

Michael Strong ([email protected]) is CEO and chief visionary officer of FLOW, Inc. (, a group working to achieve world peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability in 50 years.