The last decade has witnessed numerous efforts to reform American education, many with a common theme of increased parental choice. These movements have implications for all educators, including librarians. A brief overview of recent educational reform is instructive.
Reform proponents argue that it makes sense to give parents greater control over educational decisions, as they know their children's needs best. They also believe that competition will improve schools by reducing existing inefficiency (Goldhaber, 1999). Two popular reform efforts are vouchers and charter schools. Educational voucher programs, considered by some to be the most controversial of recent reform attempts (Hadderman, 2000), offer parents public money to send their children to the public or private schools they select. Most plans include parochial schools and allow charging tuition and imposing admissions tests. Charter schools, on the other hand, do not permit charging tuition or admissions testing (Nathan, 1996).
Charter schools are public schools that are open to all students, paid for with tax dollars and accountable for their results to a body such as a state or local school board. They differ in important ways from most public schools: almost anyone can open a charter school; they are free from most state and local regulations that govern other public schools; and they can be closed for unsatisfactory results (Finn, Manno, & Vanourek, 2001). In the absence of a requirement for a library, many charters have inadequate or nonexistent libraries. Because libraries and librarians play a key role in the promotion of information literacy and the encouragement of reading and lifelong learning, the absence of either merits concern.
The growth of charter schools has been exceptional. The first charter school legislation passed in 1991 in Minnesota (Vergari, 1999); 11 years later, 34 states and Washington, D.C., operate charter schools, serving nearly 580,000 children. In September 2001, 374 new charter schools opened (Center for School Reform, 2002).
While some researchers have found that choice results in greater parental satisfaction (Goldhaber, 2001), there is no consensus on the effectiveness of charter schools. One study examined four aspects: student achievement; school funding; teacher efficacy and empowerment; and student demographics. The authors concluded that charter schools were not as successful as some politicians claimed (Lin, 2001). Some reports from Texas and Minnesota have found that charter school students have not performed as well as those in traditional schools ("Studies Show," 1999). Others contend that charters have improved school achievement in their communities (Nathan, 1999). Many believe that there is not yet an adequate body of evidence on which to judge (Bowman, 2000).
Scanty journal coverage
A literature review on the topic of libraries in charter schools revealed that journal coverage is scarce. Although it is relatively easy to find citations with both words in the text, most have nothing to do with the connection between the two terms. The articles that were found suggest that the lack of libraries in charter schools is a genuine concern.
A School Library Journal article (Olson & Meyer, 1998) illustrates the problem of charter schools with no libraries. The publication conducted a survey, discovering that about half of the schools surveyed had no library and the remainder had very modest facilities that might be better described as reading rooms. The lack of libraries was attributed to the fact that charters normally receive operating expenses but no capital funds. The authors also noted that full-time teacher-librarians are a rarity in charters. The survey was admittedly small--24 charter schools in six states--and conducted at a time when only 23 states had charter school laws. An earlier article (Halverstadt, 1995) …