A Tale of Two Charter Schools: Creating Better and More Responsible Charter Schools

By Hicks, Rachel; Ohle, Allison et al. | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview
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A Tale of Two Charter Schools: Creating Better and More Responsible Charter Schools


Hicks, Rachel, Ohle, Allison, Valant, Jon, Kennedy School Review


Charter schools are publicly funded, nonreligious schools that are free from many of the regulations facing traditional American public schools. The essential "charter school bargain" is autonomy for accountability. In exchange for increased control over curriculum, personnel, budgeting, and other components of school management, charter school operators accept performance expectations and the threat of closure for poor performance. While charter school laws vary from state to state, most charter school teachers do not belong to teacher unions. Students are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, with random lotteries used in case of oversubscription. As public schools, charter schools cannot charge tuition.

The National Charter School Research Project reports that approximately 2.3 percent of America's schoolchildren attended a charter school in 2006-2007. This percentage has steadily risen since the first charter school law passed in 1991.

Studies of charter school performance have yielded mixed results, and charter schooling remains one of the most fiercely debated topics in American education. Advocates argue that charter schools serve as laboratories for innovation, introduce healthy competition to public education, enable parents to find schools best suited to their children, and provide alternatives to low-income families that cannot relocate if they dislike their local public schools. Opponents contend that charters take resources from the public schools, require long hours from teachers, and draw the strongest students and most active parents from the public school system.

Although charter schools and vouchers are cousins in the school choice movement, there are important differences between them. Voucher programs provide parents with public money that can be used toward private school tuition. These programs vary, but vouchers typically can be used in religious schools with admissions requirements and varying tuition costs.

EXAMPLE CHARTER SCHOOL: CLAREMONT ELEMENTARY

Poor performance, violence, and poverty plagued the Philadelphia School District in the 1990s. After numerous attempts by Philadelphia's local authorities to resurrect the failing school system, the state finally seized control of the district in 2001. As part of the district's improvement plan, the state offered to any interested party the chance to operate any of five Philadelphia public schools as a charter school. David Blaylock was one such party. After working a few connections, he was the proud owner of a charter authorizing a K-5th grade school at the site of Claremont Elementary for the 2002-2003 school year. *

David Blaylock was not an obvious choice for an educational entrepreneur. Unlike many other charter school founders, Blaylock had no experience teaching or leading a school. Instead, he had made his mark in business. Early in his career, Blaylock began buying real estate near the University of Pennsylvania's campus in West Philadelphia in the 1970s. As the university expanded west, he raked in millions. Almost thirty years later, Blaylock decided to become a philanthropist and invest in the impoverished community that had brought him such wealth.

Claremont Elementary meant more to Blaylock than just atoning for his wheeler-dealer ways; he was on a mission. Blaylock wanted to prove that even the worst public school could succeed with $500,000 more per year to hire the best teachers, reduce class sizes to twelve, buy the newest curricular materials, and hire a full-time staff of social workers.

Before Blaylock, one of Claremont Elementary's major flaws was its ineffective teachers, who would allow students to jump rope in the hallways instead of go to class. When Blaylock arrived, he refused to rehire any teacher who had previously worked at Claremont. Blaylock made hiring a high-quality staff his first priority; every teaching candidate endured numerous interviews and delivered a sample lesson to a class at a nearby charter school.

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A Tale of Two Charter Schools: Creating Better and More Responsible Charter Schools
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