Beyond the Schoolhouse Door - How Charter Schools Are Transforming U.S. Public Education

Article excerpt

Both charter enthusiasts and opponents tend to depict these schools as a revolutionary change, a policy earthquake, an unprecedented and heretofore unimaginable innovation. Both groups are probably standing too close to the objects they are describing, the authors suggest.

CHARTER schools are the liveliest reform in American education. Before these unconventional public schools vaulted into the spotlight in the mid-1990s, education reform in the U.S. was nearing paralysis - stalemated by politics and interest groups, confused by the cacophony of a thousand fads and pet schemes working at cross purposes, and hobbled by most people's inability to imagine anything very different from the schools they had attended decades earlier. Enter charter schools in 1991, a seedling reform that grew into a robust tree, then a whole grove. The trees are still young, and the grove attracts its share of lightning strikes. But it is steadily expanding and mostly thriving.

Today, there are charter laws in 36 states and the District of Columbia, with nearly 1,700 charter schools in 32 states and D.C., enrolling some 350,000 students. Perhaps even more significantly, the charter phenomenon has begun to reach well beyond the boundaries of these individual schools and the people directly affected by them. It is transforming some school districts and communities, figuring in larger political struggles, and leaving its tracks on American education as a whole. It turns out that these schools represent a fundamental overhaul of the assumptions and power structures of U.S. public education. Even if charter schools do not come to dominate our education system, the idea they embody has powerful implications for the entire enterprise of public schooling.

In what follows, we briefly delineate the nature of a charter school, identify and discuss four stages in the evolution of the education establishment's reaction to charters, and sketch some of the charter movement's early impacts at the district, state, and national levels.

What Is a Charter School?

A workable starting definition of a charter school is "an independent public school of choice, freed from rules but accountable for results." A charter school is a new species - a hybrid with important similarities to district public schools, with some of the prized attributes of private schools, but with crucial differences from both.

As a public school, a charter school is open to all who wish to attend it (i.e., without regard to race, religion, or academic ability), is paid for with tax dollars (no tuition charges), and is accountable for its results to an authoritative public body (such as a school board, state agency, or public university) as well as to those who enroll and teach in it.

Yet charter schools are quite different from standard-issue public schools.

Most are distinguished by four key features: they can be created by almost anyone; they are exempt from most state and local regulations and are essentially autonomous in their operations; they are attended by youngsters whose families choose them and staffed by educators who choose to work in them; and they are liable to be closed by the public authority that authorizes them if they fail to produce satisfactory results.

Charter schools also resemble private schools in two important particulars.

First, they are independent. Although answerable to outside authorities for their results, they are free to produce those results as they think best.

They are self-governing institutions with wide-ranging control over their own curriculum, instruction, staffing, budget, internal organization, and much more. The second similarity is that nearly all of them are schools of choice. Nobody is assigned against his or her will to attend (or teach in) a charter school.

Charters are, quite simply, redefining and reinventing what is meant by "public education. …