School choice isn’t just good for students and parents. It’s good for teachers, too.
Teacher burnout and job frustration are at an all-time high. Many great teachers feel like they can’t do their best work because of student discipline problems, a lack of administrative support, and bureaucratic red tape. But what if teachers could run their own schools - schools that would provide an alternative to those run by the local district? What if the only people they had to satisfy were the family clients who chose their school for their children’s educational needs?
In a 2020 paper, the 1889 Institute, an Oklahoma-based think tank, argued that teacher-run charter schools could empower educators to be far more innovative and better serve students.
“Practitioners of a skill in this country generally have the ability and freedom to start their own businesses,” wrote the 1889 Institute report’s authors, Byron Schlomach and Mike Davis. But this is generally not true in education, where K-12 schools function not only as a monopoly (low- and middle-income families generally have no choice but to accept whatever the local school district offers), but as “monosponies” as well. Monopsony is a term economists use to describe a market where there is essentially just one buyer – in this case a buyer for teacher labor.
“If a person wants to teach, the public schools are far and away the biggest potential employer, thereby minimizing other potential opportunities to work as a teacher,” Schlomach and Davis wrote. “Economists have long pointed out that monopsony employers take advantage of employees, hiring too few, overworking them, and underpaying them…A key to improving student learning is recognizing that teachers are and ought to be treated as professionals, but the key to this goal is allowing teachers to be independent practitioners (i.e. go into private practice like other professionals).”
The 1889 Institute report argued that teachers should be allowed to open their own charter schools in which they would have total control over curriculum and instruction. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that must take all applicants and operate independently from local boards of education. While such schools would face the ultimate form of accountability – they would have to close their doors if they couldn’t draw a sufficient number of happy families to their school – the teacher operators would also experience a level of professional autonomy typically unknown in K-12 education.
Schlomach and Davis argue that such teacher-operated ventures should be allowed to organize as for-profit entities, increasing the likelihood that teachers could earn better salaries than in traditional public schools. Under the model legislation they propose, a teacher or group of teachers would have to raise a bond that would cover education expenses for students who had to return to their assigned public school if their teacher-run charter closed mid-year. But if they could do so, the state board of education would be required to issue a charter for the school to operate and compete.
Unfortunately, the possibility of a teacher-run charter school is highly unlikely in Kentucky under the limitations of the weak charter school law passed by the General Assembly this year.
HB9 provides for only two Kentucky charter schools in the next five years. Otherwise, local boards of education essentially posses veto power over all other charter applications under the new law. As long as the education establishment continues to view charters as a threat to their monopoly rather than a new tool to better meet student needs, they are likely to reject all charter applications, whether initiated by teachers or any other group.
Moreover, Kentucky law forbids a for-profit entity from seeking a charter application, undermining the financial incentives for teachers to pursue this option as the 1889 Institute report imagines.
Lawmakers need to return to Frankfort next year and make changes to the charter law that will increase the probability that more high-quality charters can actually open in Kentucky. And they should specifically seek ways to encourage teachers themselves to become applicants.
“Parents and students would have more choices in terms of curriculum, discipline policies, and other issues in a world with Professional Teacher Charters,” argued Schlomach and Davis. “Some teachers who have recently left education might come back. Others who are currently frustrated within the system could start schools and students who particularly like them could follow along.”
If we’re serious about making our schools better, Kentucky should make teacher-run charters a part of the solution.
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University and a policy advisor for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities. He served on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019.