Charter Schools - Another Reform Failure or a Worthwhile Investment?

Article excerpt

The fate of charter schools ultimately depends on the resolve of legislators to develop laws that allow for constructive innovation while balancing the needs of all students for access to safe and educative environments, the authors aver.

AMERICAN schools have been "in crisis" for some time. As long ago as 1845 Boston citizens responded to an unfavorable commentary on their schools: *It was disturbing to the people of Boston to have their costly schools attacked by a public official and compared unfavorably with schools in Germany and other foreign countries.'1 Educational controversies (even international comparisons) have long been a part of our nation's history.

This time around, public education has been in acute crisis since the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk.

The history of reform in public education is well documented and well known to Kappan readers. However, it is worth remembering that the field has suffered from abrupt, dichotomous choices (e.g., phonics versus whole language, teacher-focused versus student-focused learning). Unfortunately, research has played but a small role in reform efforts because research is reactive and so follows rather than precedes reform.

Today, education is the top political issue in the 2000 Presidential race.

President Clinton has been an avid supporter of charter schools, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have given political support to their growth. The charter movement, like other reform efforts in the past, is viewed as a simple answer to complex problems, and little research exploring how students learn in charter schools has been produced.

What is important about this movement is that charter schools have emerged with strong bipartisan support at the federal level. Furthermore, several states (notably Arizona, California, and Michigan) have invested vast amounts of public funds in charter schools. Arizona alone has already appropriated $600 million for charter school funding.2

What benefits for citizens have emerged from this investment? Are charter schools a successful reform? Or are they, like past reform efforts, strong on political claims but weak on documented educational change? Our analysis shows that, to date, charter schools as a group have made a marginal contribution to the reform of American education. Although they have had considerable political success, they have yet to contribute substantially to issues of teaching and curriculum. However, the charter school movement is still young. Despite the marginal return on the public dollars spent to date, we believe that charter schools might yet make a contribution to public education.

Our main purpose in this article is to explore four problematic aspects of charter schools that must be changed if charter schools are to improve American education in more than marginal ways. We end with suggestions for needed legislation and research that could enhance the role of charter schools in meaningful reform.

Charter Schools and Reform

Defining charter schools is difficult because supporting legislation varies from state to state. In The Great School Debate: Choice, Vouchers, and Charters,3 we attempt to answer the question "What is a charter school"?

Then we draw on our own research, review available work on charter schools, provide an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of charter schools, and comment on ways in which the movement can be enhanced. Given the popularity of charter schools and the large investment of public funds in them, it is not surprising that several research studies have examined the organization of charter schools, their particular philosophy and curricula, the students they attract, and their impact on students.4 We present here a few of the general conclusions from our comprehensive examination of the literature.

Although the reasons for creating charter schools are varied, the belief that a market-driven organization will outperform a traditional bureaucratic model in our public schools is fundamental to the movement. …