Will Charter Schools Lead to a Systemic Reform of Public Education?

Article excerpt

Abstract

If there has been any one common theme in educational reform in the last two decades of the 20th Century, it can be captured in two words - school choice. Whether through open enrollment, vouchers or charter schools, the drumbeat of choice echoes in the halls of virtually every state legislature in the country. But the charter school movement bas been the fastest vehicle to take off. With vouchers mired in court battles and open enrollment viewed as a limited choice offering, reformers have pinned their hopes on charter schools. This paper is designed to give a brief overview of the status of the charter school movement at the close of its first decade.

"Imagine, for a moment, a public education system in which every school is a charter school. Radical? You bet." (Osborne, 1999). What a remarkable statement this is to appear in print. You might expect that such a statement would be found in a document published by a charter school advocacy group. Yet, the statement comes from the National Commission on Governing America's Schools, a group created by the Education Commission of the States. How did we go from Milton Friedman's advocacy of free-market competition in the 1950's to a statement like the one above? What is more important, is the school choice fever of the 1990's the precursor to real change in our system of public education in America in the 21st Century?

The goal of this paper is to examine some of the issues that have arisen in the decade of the 1990's as charter schools have sprung up across the nation. At the beginning of the decade a mere handful of states had begun the process of passing laws allowing for the chartering of schools. By the end of the decade, nearly 300,000 students are attending classes in the 1,205 charter schools. There are now 37 states with charter school laws on the books, which is quite astounding for such a short time. While the charter movement has been given a lukewarm greeting from the public school establishment, the movement has become the darling of the media. Time magazine has called them the "New Hope for Public Schools" (Wallis, 1994). The New York Times calls them the "Latest `Best Hope' in U.S. Education" (Applebome, 1994). These are stunning statements much like the words from the National Commission. But are charter schools the lightning rod of change as some have suggested?

What are Charter Schools?

In 1991, Minnesota began the chartering movement by enacting the first charter school law The law was designed to give teachers the opportunity to "charter" schools that would be free of most state and local regulations. The schools could be operated as nonprofit ventures. Nonsectarian in nature, the charter schools, in effect, were private schools that would be publicly supported. Within four years, the number of states with charter school laws on the books had risen to eleven.

The nature of the schools revolves around the concept of empowering teachers and parents at the building level to create the type of school they want within very broad guidelines. By lifting the myriad of bureaucratic regulations from the charter schools, lawmakers seek to give teachers the optimum chance to create models that fit the needs of the locality they serve. In a 1995 survey of over one hundred charter schools, researchers found that what had been created to date were usually small elementary schools. Founders stated that their focus was on items such as "integrated interdisciplinary curriculum," or "technology," or "back to the basics" (University of Minnesota, 1995).

At the end of the decade of the 1990's, the nature of chartered schools had taken several steps forward. According to the National Charter School Directory, the growth of schools has picked up substantially. From the 19971998 school year to the 1998-1999 school year, the number of charter schools had grown by 65 percent, with 473 new schools opening in the fall of 1998. …