Guest Editor's Introduction: Contradictions and Paradoxes-Theorizing Charter Schools from Social Foundations Perspectives

Article excerpt

In this special issue of Educational Foundations, contributing authors use sociological, anthropological, and post-modern analysis to unmask some of the troubling contradictions of charter schools in action. Represented in this issue are the diversity of types of charters--ones founded by parents, educators, and corporations--operating across the country as well as charters with varied missions. This issue offers readers stories of charter schools whose contradictions and paradoxes bring life to critical issues in educational foundations such as equity, race, caring, identity, and power and privilege.

The focus of this special issue is not specifically on policy, accountability, or the promise or the failure of charter reform efforts. Instead, a premise that educators need to consider when looking at reforms like charter schools is "what for" and "at what cost?" A more critical look at the contradictions of charter reforms, and the use of various theoretical frameworks to understand how those contradictions play out in multiple contexts, are essential to asking these more difficult and complex questions.

In order to make principled decisions about the promise of educational reform efforts such as the charter school movement, educators must analyze theoretical contexts that surround and are embedded within educational reform agendas. Analyzing charter schools from social foundations perspectives provides spaces to look at the complex and varied nature of charter schools as well as paradoxes inherent in the "freedoms" of the reform effort.

In this introduction, I will briefly discuss the context of the charter school reform movement from which these case studies are situated, and discuss some of the emerging themes of the issue.

Charter School Reform

Since the inception of the first charter school in Minnesota in 1991, the number of charter schools operating across the country has dramatically increased, and the trend does not seem to be slowing down any time soon. In the 2004-2005 school year, more than 450 new charter schools opened across 34 states; another 236 schools have already been approved to begin operation in 2005 or 2006. Today, there are approximately 3,400 charter schools operating in 40 states and the District of Columbia, serving almost one million students (Center for Educational Reform, 2005).

The explosion of charter schools across the United States can be understood in a number of ways. Some have flocked to or started their own charter schools because of a significant lack of satisfaction with public schools. In North Carolina, where four of the case studies in this issue are situated, the majority of the charter schools which were initially started were founded by parents and community activists in African-American communities who were frustrated with the education of African-American children in the state's public schools. Similar stories can be found across the country where disenfranchised communities have used the charter school movement to develop schools where the hope is that student needs will be better met (Nathan, 1996; Yancey, 2000).

Charters are attractive to people of all political persuasions because the reform is centered on the idea of freedom and autonomy. Schools have more control over decisions locally, and they have more flexibility and freedom from many of the policies affecting traditional public schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). For people who prefer local control instead of state or "big government" control over education, charters provide the perfect venue to create an alternative public school that reflect local values and needs. Theoretically, with much of the bureaucracy and hegemonic policies of school districts removed, schools would be more efficient at meeting goals, creativity would flourish, and teachers would be free to teach without constraint (Nathan, 1996). In this market-driven ideology, it is believed that with better competition, all schools would improve and better serve their clients (parents and students) (Good & Braden, 2000). …