Learning from charter schools

-This article was originally published in The Himalayan Times on January 22, 2017 by Labisha Uprety.

‘Increased independence in pedagogy make charter schools desirable’

A large number of studies time and again give weight to the claim that education is fundamental to growth and prosperity.  At a country level, it is also seen as one of the major responsibilities of the state. Most countries nowadays guarantee their citizens access to free education through their constitutions. Nepal’s Constitution 2072 (2015) also upholds access to education as a fundamental right of its citizens, and guarantees free and compulsory education until grade 8; and further speaks of continuing attempts to make education free until secondary level. Social mobility is greatly eased by access to education – proven both by rigorous research, and increasingly, the importance ascribed to it by our own belief systems.

What is a good school?

As of 2015, there were 29,133 community schools in Nepal (operating grades 1-12). While there seems to be little argument as to whether we have a large number of schools or not, a more pertinent matter of concern becomes if we have ‘good’ schools or not.

What is a ‘good’ school, then? The answer is often subjective and colored by ideas of our own schooling experiences. But there are also certain elements that are present in almost all of our definitions. These include but are not limited to an incentivized learning environment, purposeful teaching that explores pedagogy, professionalism and a stringent monitoring process.

These ideals have become hard to find in public or community schools of Nepal and parents often find themselves trying to afford the more expensive alternative of private schools. There is a clear lack of political infiltration in the classroom, while politics dominates community school operations. Low-cost private schools are being continually favored in Kathmandu, where fees are more affordable and education more accountable. Community schools certainly own larger infrastructures compared to their private counterparts – with bigger playgrounds and sizeable classrooms and even better trained teachers. But with the continual failure of the public education system to deliver in national examinations, money being poured every year into these schools seems to be doing little good.

Charter Schools

The world is rapidly innovating new and better practices in education. A relatively new practice, gaining steady but widespread prominence, is that of charter schools. A ‘charter’ is a legal document that describes how a particular entity will operate. In reference to a charter school, a charter describes the modality of operation of a school where an interested party signs a legal document either to establish a new school or take over the management of a public school. The  ‘interested party’ here could be a group of teachers, parents, a mixture of both or even business persons looking to open specialized schools to create skilled human resources.  Charter schools are characterized by a lower regulatory burden than public schools but with effective internal and external monitoring mechanisms. In exchange for greater flexibility and independence of operation, charter schools must be more accountable for results and meet the requirements of the agreed “charter.”

Certain charter school characteristics such as funding allocations determined by per pupil enrollment rather than by number of teachers in an institution could be effective in making public schools more competitive. Increased independence in pedagogy also make charter schools desirable.

However, studies have not shown an outright indication that charter schools fare much better than public schools. This is because charter schools are fairly heterogeneous and differ from one school to the other in terms of pedagogy. It remains interesting still, in countries like ours, where public education is largely corrupted and private efforts are seen more accountable.

Way forward in Nepal

For new innovations to flourish, a conducive environment need also be crafted. Particularly, problems of political infiltration and nepotistic appointments in our schools need to be addressed at the root. The absence of local elections for almost two decades has caused School Management Committees (SMC) to become desirable positions to exert influence and exploit public funds. This in turn results in teachers being appointed on basis on who they know rather than what they know.

Opening a policy space to allow interested persons to manage public schools would allow for much needed changes in the public education system.  Pilot projects for allowing this management system to overtake schools that are to be merged or are in abysmal shape could allow the state to scrutinize this idea better. Private schools have flourished in Nepal precisely because their management is perceived to be more efficient. There is a way of allowing the same to prosper in public education through charter schools.