Chartering: a platform for (disruptive) innovation

December 21, 2015 • Curtis Johnson

Following several discussions about whether the education ‘industry’ was a suitable object for studying the effects of disruptive innovation, I recall Clayton Christensen showing up in October of 2005 at a breakfast meeting that Education Evolving was sponsoring in a small hotel near George Washington University in D.C..

That’s the morning he proposed writing what became the award-winning book Disrupting Class, asserting an inevitable impact new technology would have on an industry chronically resistant to change. In the many subsequent conversations in his Harvard Business School office as we and Michael Horn were writing the book, the debate that sticks in my mind was over whether the chartering movement was ‘disruptive’ in Clay’s theoretical framework.

He was adamant and persuasive at the time that chartering was, while important, best considered a ‘sustaining’ innovation, just an improvement on the classic school district education governance model. Clay asserted that technology would be the big disrupter. That is still the outcome to bet on, but over the years I have begun to wonder about whether the systemic innovation of chartering is more fundamentally disruptive than we recognized then.

Prompting this reconsideration was the Schumpeter column in the November 28 edition of The Economist, in which the author pointed out how diluted the definition of disruption has become, but also how narrow Christensen’s theory seems, since he did not regard Uber as a disruption. Uber doesn’t fit the theory because it didn’t emerge first as an inferior service, appealing initially to people not well served by the dominant providers. Instead, Uber provided what looked like better service to customers constantly complaining about their experiences with taxis.

So, shift fast to the education world. When the network of activists in Minnesota crafted the nation’s first charter school law and willing legislators got it passed in 1991, I recall clearly that most people in the industry were in the patting us on the head mode, saying, “That’s nice, but it won’t amount to much.” They were, in effect, saying, “chartering won’t disrupt us.”

Schumpeter (a regular column header in The Economist) asserts that the practical test of whether an innovation is disruptive is to ask whether others in the space feel disrupted. In his column he says, “…ask any cabbie if Uber threatens to disrupt his business, and you will be left in no doubt as to the answer.” Well, would not the same question be put to any educator in the traditional district sector? Ask any school district leaders whether the chartering movement is disruptive—then get ready for a robust response.

The point is not whether chartering is disruptive in a classic theoretical debate, but whether it is a platform for continuous innovation—getting beyond the Ubers and Netflixes to the next learning strategies not yet imagined. The chartering platform, still under assault from the dominant education industry, remains the critical source for innovation. And as the movement continues, there’s no harm in considering it an ongoing disruptive development.