Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?

Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?

Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?

Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?


Over the past several years, privately run, publicly funded charter schools have been sold to the American public as an education alternative promising better student achievement, greater parent satisfaction, and more vibrant school communities. But are charter schools delivering on their promise? Or are they just hype as critics contend, a costly experiment that is bleeding tax dollars from public schools? In this book, Jack Buckley and Mark Schneider tackle these questions about one of the thorniest policy reforms in the nation today.

Using an exceptionally rigorous research approach, the authors investigate charter schools in Washington, D.C., carefully examining school data going back more than a decade, interpreting scores of interviews with parents, students, and teachers, and meticulously measuring how charter schools perform compared to traditional public schools. Their conclusions are sobering.

Buckley and Schneider show that charter-school students are not outperforming students in traditional public schools, that the quality of charter-school education varies widely from school to school, and that parent enthusiasm for charter schools starts out strong but fades over time. And they argue that while charter schools may meet the most basic test of sound public policy--they do no harm--the evidence suggests they all too often fall short of advocates' claims.

With the future of charter schools--and perhaps public education as a whole--hanging in the balance, this book supports the case for holding charter schools more accountable and brings us considerably nearer to resolving this contentious debate.


In the United States today, many different education reforms compete for the attention of political leaders, policy makers, parents, and school officials. Charter schools constitute one of the most widespread and important of these. Since Minnesota passed the first charter-school law in 1991, forty-two states, including the District of Columbia, have passed similar legislation, and thirty-seven of these have operating charter schools (WestEd 2003, 1). As of April 2006, there were over 3,500 charter schools serving over 1 million students nationwide (Center for Education Reform 2006), up from only 100 schools in 1995 (Research Policy Practice International 2001).

There are many excellent explorations of the history and the politics of the charter-school “movement,” and there is no need for us to repeat that information in detail here. But there is a series of fundamental questions and definitions that we need to address before moving on to the core of our analysis. First, there is the question of exactly what a charter school is. One interesting characteristic of most extant definitions is that, while they identify the core characteristics of charter schools, they almost always include language about not only what charter schools are but also glowing language about what they will do—that is, they often portray the hope of charter schools, while adding a bit of hype. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement:

The promise charter schools hold for public school innovation and reform
lies in an unprecedented combination of freedom and accountability. Under
written with public funds but run independently, charter schools are free from
a range of state laws and district policies stipulating what and how they teach,
where they can spend their money, and who they can hire and fire. In return,
they are held strictly accountable for their academic and financial perfor
mance. (U. S. Department of Education 2004, 1)

Putting aside the value-laden aspects of this description, this excerpt helps to identify the key structural characteristics of charter schools. Broadly defined, charter schools are publicly funded schools that are granted significant autonomy in curriculum and governance in return for greater accountability. In addition, the charter establishing a school is . . .

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