Charter Schools Legislation and the Element of Race

Article excerpt

Charter schools emerged in the early 1990's as a new idea for public school reform. Charter schools were presented as an alternative school choice option that can circumvent state and national bureaucratic controls that were perceived as hindering public schools reform efforts. The thinking behind the charter school idea is that the more autonomous a school is, the more the school will become an effective organization that is free to innovate and more attuned to the needs of the students (Chubb and Moe, 1990). In essence, charter schools have more independence and can allow parents and teachers to have greater say in how they are run. The "charter" establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school's goals. The charter may be granted by a local school board, a state board of education, or a public institution of higher education, depending upon the state. Within three to five years time, if the school's goals (fiscal and academic) are not met, then the school is at risk of losing its charter and can be forced to shut down.

The charter school initiative emerged as part of the school choice movement that gained momentum after the publication of a study by The National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) in 1983 called "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform" that underlined key weaknesses in the American public schooling system (NCEE, 1983). By the mid 1980's, an increased number of parents began to take their children out of public schools and enroll them in alternative schools. Among the alternatives were magnet and charter schools. More controversial alternatives also emerged such as voucher based education and home schooling (Van Galen and Pittman, 1991).

Minnesota passed the nation's first charter school law in 1991. Between 1991 and 2003 forty other states and the District of Columbia passed charter school laws. As of January 2007, 3,600 charter schools, enrolling more than 1 million students, were operating across the United States (Center for Education Reform, 2007). The diffusion of charter school laws across the United States happened rapidly. The speed of diffusion of innovation was calculated based on the average rate of diffusion (53 years) of 12 innovations examined by Gray (1973).

Besides autonomy and choice, proponents of charter schools legislation note that charter schools are also designed to increase opportunities for learning and provide access to quality education for students, provide a system of accountability for results in public education, encourage innovative teaching practices, create new professional opportunities for teachers, and encourage community and parent involvement in public education (Chen, 2006). In order to avoid a situation where charter schools become segregated schools, the majority of states that passed charter school legislation also have provisions in the legislation that calls for racial integration. The legislation calls for either the state or a local education agencies to enforce the regulations (Frankenberg and Lee, 2003).

It appears that charter schools, in general, are doing a good job in meeting many of their goals. A majority of studies on charter school reviewed by the Center for Education Reform (CER) between the mid 1990's and the Fall of 2000 show that "charters are doing the job they were designed to do, with 88 major reports now showing that charter schools are improving education for American kids" (CER 2003, 1). There are dissenting voices, however, that claim that although it is difficult to compare charter schools to public schools due to different educational approaches and enrollment mechanisms, careful analysis shows that there is no evidence that charter schools perform better than public schools (Frankenberg and Lee, 2003). On average, because many charter schools accept a higher percentage of low achieving public school students, charter schools students are not performing as well as public schools students on state and national tests (Collins, 2001; Toppo, 2002). …