The Charter School Initiative as a Case of Back to the Future

Article excerpt

Institutional shifts in education are primarily a response to changes in the larger environment in which schools reside--in the economy, the society, and the polity. In other words, institutional changes in education are economically, socially, and politically determined. (Murphy, 1999, p. 405)

In New Consumerism: Evolving Market Dynamics in the Institutional Dimensions of Schooling, Murphy (1999) argued that schools are subject to fluctuations that emerge through time--as culture changes, schools change. Kliebard (1995), for example, documented historical struggles for the American curriculum as various economic, social and political forces competed for control of the education of students in the United States. Charter schools can be seen as a response to contemporary cultural shifts in this country. This article uses the case of Forth Academy (1) to explore the impact of contemporary economic, social and political shifts on the organization, curriculum and instruction of one charter school.

Forth Academy is a charter school operated by a private company that uses market-based and consumer-driven methods to advance a particular vision and curriculum. Forth Academy's version of reform espouses rigorous academics through a return to the basics, a strong moral focus, high parent involvement, and accountability for all. In true market fashion, Forth Academy promises parents--the primary consumer--to deliver a product that results in students' high academic achievement. Operating a number of charter schools in several states, Forth's parent company is taking successful advantage of the charter school reform initiative to market a product and realize a profit through the development of charter schools. Based in the reemergence of market ideology in economics and the growth of neo-conservative social policy (Murphy, 1999), taking advantage of the charter school initiative can be seen as a case of back to the future.

This case study was constructed as part of a larger evaluation of charter schools in North Carolina as mandated by state legislation (Noblit & Corbett, 2001; Price, this issue). Data were collected in Fall 2000 and included interviews and focus groups with school administrators (including principal, board members, and company representatives), teachers, parents and students. The site visit also included classroom observations and attendance at a school board meeting. Additional data include field notes, materials collected on site, and materials available on-line through the school and parent company websites. The description of the school will be followed by a brief review of literatures that outlines economic, social and political shifts and their impact on the culture of Forth Academy.

Description of the School

Forth Academy is managed by "American Legacy Charter Schools" (ALCS), (2) a for-profit company that operates more than 50 charter schools in several states. Literature on the company and its schools is available through publications and the company's website, each source claiming that ALCS has designed an ideal school for children: a "nurturing educational community" preparing "enlightened, ethical adults."

Visitors to Forth Academy are welcomed by a sign that announces American Legacy Charter School in large and bold letters, with the school's name, Forth Academy, in smaller-sized print. The sign also names the campus (i.e., West Campus), suggesting the possibility of another ALCS campus in this city (e.g., East Campus). Forth Academy opened in the Fall of 1999 in a suburban area of a mid-sized city in North Carolina. The school originally enrolled students in kindergarten through 5th grades, with plans to expand a grade per year until serving grades K-8. At the time of the site visit in the Fall of 2000, there were about 300 students in grades K-6 and 18 teachers. Forth Academy currently enrolls approximately 600 students in grades K-8, with 32 teachers, a principal and an assistant principal. …