Progress, Possibilities, and Problems of the Charter Public School Movement

By Nathan, Joe | Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Progress, Possibilities, and Problems of the Charter Public School Movement


Nathan, Joe, Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology


CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST-GROWING INITIATIVES IN EDUCATION. SOME ARE ACHIEVING IMPRESSIVE GAINS IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT, AND THEY ARE ATTRACTING THE SUPPORT OF GOVERNMENT LEADERS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE AISLE, SOME EDUCATORS, AND RESPECTED CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATES, BUT THEY FACE STRONG OPPOSITION IN SOME STATE LEGISLATURES AND AMONG SOME EDUCATION GROUPS. THEY ARE DEMONSTRATING THE SUCCESS OF INTRIGUING NEW USES OF TECHNOLOGY, BUT THEY OFTEN HOLD CLASSES IN UNDER-FUNDED, INADEQUATE, AND TEMPORARY FACILITIES.

Some of the most intriguing uses of technology are found in the nation's charter public schools, along with some of the nation's most honored teachers and respected civil fights advocates. It's far too early to declare the charter movement a success, but it is time to recognize its progress, as well as its challenges.

KEY COMPONENTS OF THE CHARTER IDEA

What is the charter idea? It's an attempt to build on three fundamental principles of America. First, the charter movement is about the opportunity to carry out dreams. Second, the movement stresses responsibility for results. And finally, the movement underscores the idea that families should have some freedom to select among different kinds of schools. But the charter idea is quite different from vouchers. Here are the key principles of the charter idea.

* Charters are public schools. They are non-sectarian and may not have admissions tests. No one is assigned to work in, or to attend, charter schools. Charters may be newly created schools or schools that have converted to charter status.

* Charters are accountable for improving student achievement, a responsibility specified in three- to five-year contracts that they sign with their authorizing (sponsoring) organization.

* In exchange for this explicit accountability, charter schools receive waivers from most state and local operating rules, regulations, and contracts.

* Various public bodies have the authority to authorize others to create new charter schools or to convert existing district-controlled schools into charter schools.

SEVEN KEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Charter schools have demonstrated seven key accomplishments since the first was established in 1992.

No. 1: Charters have shown significant growth.

Thirty-six states have adopted some form of charter law in the last seven years. The number of charter schools has grown from one to more than 1,500 since 1992. The most effective laws have clear evaluation/assessment guidelines and allow multiple sponsors. (Weak laws limit sponsorship only to local school boards, which could create innovative schools without charter legislation.) Effective laws offer blanket waivers from most state and local rules and regulations and do not put strict limits on the number of charter schools. Many states have strengthened their charter laws because of positive experiences with the idea. For example, in 1996 Minnesota allowed up to 30 charters. Texas permitted up to 20 state-sponsored charters, and California set the limit at 100. Minnesota no longer limits the number of charters. California will permit creation of up to 250 charters in the next year, and up to 100 more in each succeeding year. Texas now allows the state to sponsor 120 charters, but the number could be unlimited if the schools serve mostly students who have not succeeded previously.

No. 2: Charters have attracted veteran community activists, including civil rights legend Rosa Parks.

Ms. Parks, who has applied to start a charter in Detroit, is one of many inner-city activists involved in the charter movement. As The New York Times noted, "From New Jersey to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to Minnesota, Texas and Colorado, minority legislators and advocacy groups from the inner cities have been forging powerful alliances with conservatives to enact legislation that authorizes the charter schools. …

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