Charter Schools, Information Technology, and Experimental Democracy

John McGinnis, author of the forthcoming Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Government Through Technological Change will be taking to Election 101 to blog regularly about technology and the election. This week he returns with an unusual structural argument for charter schools. With better tools available for evaluating success or failure of policy, can a case be made for charter schools on the basis that their sheer diversity of approaches provide perfect opportunities for testing which educational policies work and which are outright failures? Read his post here:



Charter Schools, Information Technology, and Experimental Democracy

John McGinnis


Education is again a central topic in many of this year’s political campaigns. One example: a state senate race in California seems to be turning on a debate about education in general and charter schools in particular. While the United States dominates the lists of the world’s greatest universities, it consistently fails to be near the top of the global charts of the best performing K-12 schools. There is a strong consensus in the United States over the need for better education. Political disagreements concern the policies that will improve learning.

The Economist had an article a week ago praising charter schools for generally better performance than other government funded schools. The article concedes that not all such schools work better. Some in fact need to be closed as outright failures.

In my book, Accelerating Democracy, I defend charter schools as injecting experimental dynamism into democracy. Because charter schools vary substantially from one another even within a single jurisdiction, they have the advantage of creating more experiments on different kinds of educational inputs (from smaller classes to merit pay). Because of the relentless increase in computational capacity we have continually better tools to evaluate through careful statistical analysis which policies work and which do not. Just as democracy in the eighteenth century needed to be nested in the technology of its time, like the printing press, so democracy today should be nested in our new information technology. Because we have the tools better to evaluate policy experiments, we should structure our institutions better to test policies. Democracy in the information age should be a more self-consciously experimental democracy.

Some structures of governance encourage experimentation more than others. Federalism, for instance, allows states to devise different solutions to social problems rather than have the federal government impose a single solution. But charter schools provide another experimental structure. Even if they deliver results that are not better on average than public schools, their diversity can help us make progress on choosing programs that make children more knowledgeable and successful. Charter schools take widely varying approaches with some emphasizing a back to basic education philosophy and others more progressive techniques. Some will use merit pay. Others will not. The results of such myriad differences can then be evaluated.

Decentralization at both the national and local level promotes experimentation. In this election season, it is important to think about what are the structures that will allow us to evaluate the success and failure of policies with the tools that modern technology makes available. That is the route to long-term policy progress.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.


  1. Terrence Batson says:

    Charters offer freedom to innovate and improve educational practice. They also inform traditional public school system of an added player thereby providing motivation (as a competitor) for increased performance and student achievement. A switch from staffing to a student ratio of school finance will allow individual schools to make decisions about funding to better serve each school population and allow the public to see which schools are performing and which should be restructured or in some cases closed altogether.