Are Charter Schools Effective?

Article excerpt

Background for the Study

Within the context of continual dissatisfaction with American public schools, charter school proponents view charter schools as a viable reform mechanism. At the heart of their reform potential is a degree of exemption from state bureaucratic and regulatory red tape which traditional public schools do not have (Sarason, 1998). This exemption would allow schools to tailor their programs and to experiment to attract and better serve students. As of spring 2003, forty states in the United States have enacted charter school legislation; 2,500 charter schools are operating. The numbers of schools established in each of the forty states varies from none in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Tennessee to well over two hundred in Arizona (Center for Education Reform, 2003).

The degree of freedom and autonomy afforded charter schools varies from state to state however. The Center for Education Reform conducts yearly rankings of state charter school laws based on ten criteria concerning charter school operations and their relationship to their chartering entity. The score for each state's charter school law is then assigned a letter grade and a classification as being either strong (encouraging the development of charter schools) or weak (discouraging the development of charter schools) (Center for Education Reform, 2003). In this way, states are categorized regarding the strength of their charter school statutes.

A strong charter school law encourages the development of charter schools within a state by: (a) permitting an unlimited or substantial number of charter schools; (b) allowing a number of entities in addition to the local school board to authorize charter schools; (c) permitting a variety of individuals and groups both inside and outside the existing public school system to start charter schools; (d) permitting new schools to start up from scratch; (e) permitting charter schools to be started without proving specified levels of local support; (f) providing automatic blanket waivers from most or all state education laws and regulations; (g) permitting charter schools to be independent legal entities; (h) guaranteeing 100 percent of per-pupil state funding to charter schools; (i) permitting charter schools to control their funds; and (j) giving charter schools complete control over personnel decisions (Center for Education Reform, 2003).

On the other hand, a weak charter school law controls the development of charter schools in a state by: (a) restricting the number of charter schools; (b) limiting the number of entities, such as the local school board, that can authorize charter schools; (c) limiting the variety of individuals and groups who can start charter schools; (d) permitting only existing public schools to be converted into charter schools; (e) requiring the demonstration of specified levels of support prior to the establishment of the charter school; (f) requiring or not allowing charter schools to apply to the chartering body for waivers from specific education laws and regulations; (g) requiring charter schools to be under the governance of the local school district; (h) setting funding at levels less than 100 percent of per pupil funding in the state or by requiring negotiations for funding with the local school district; (i) allowing funds to only be disbursed through the local school district; and (j) requiring adherence to the local school district's collective bargaining agreements or work rules (Center for Education Reform, 2003).

With these degrees of freedom from red tape comes responsibility. Are charter schools effective? One means by which to address this question is the utilization of the effective schools research. In her 2002 Phi Delta Kappan article, Barbara Taylor finds that the effective schools process is "alive and well" (p. 375). She notes that the process and correlates of effective schools have been accepted as one of the approved comprehensive school reform models in the U. …