Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Charter School Reform in California: Does It Meet Expectations?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Charter School Reform in California: Does It Meet Expectations?

Article excerpt

UCLA Charter School Study

From their study of 17 charter schools in 10 school districts across California, the authors conclude that, unless charter schools begin living up to some of the assumptions that have so far propelled them, it is time to reassess this magic bullet of school reform.

THE CHARTER school movement has taken the country by storm, leaving in its wake 33 state laws allowing parents, educators, or entrepreneurs to create independent schools that are publicly funded but free from many state and local regulations. Charter school reform has been embraced by policy makers on both sides of the political aisle and by diverse groups of activists as one of the most promising solutions to the problems of public education.1

The view of charter school reform as a solution rests on a set of claims about what charter schools can accomplish. Proponents argue, for instance, that charter schools are held more accountable for student outcomes; enjoy greater freedom from the cumbersome public system; operate more efficiently; provide educational choices to parents and students, particularly those who typically have few choices in education; infuse healthy competition into a bureaucratic and unresponsive public system; and, finally, model innovative practices for other schools and educators.

Today, nearly a decade after these claims were first made, researchers are beginning to question some of them as they relate to the day-to-day experiences of educators and parents in charter schools and in nearby public schools. Our study of 17 charter schools in 10 school districts across California does just that, and this article presents some of our preliminary findings.

We have learned, for instance, that despite the hard work and dedication of the founders and operators of charter schools and despite the impressive gains many have made under trying conditions, charter school reform, for the most part, falls short of the broad and comprehensive claims made by its advocates.

We have learned that charter school reform is a laissez-faire policy that allows people greater freedom but provides them with virtually no support. As a result, what charter school operators can accomplish is often related to the resources, connections, and political savvy that they bring with them. Furthermore, without additional resources targeted toward the poorest communities, charter school operators have little power to overcome existing inequalities within the large and uneven public education system. In fact, in some instances - e.g., when they employ admissions criteria - charter schools can even exacerbate these inequalities.

Over the past 21/2 years, we met hundreds of satisfied charter school educators and parents who were proud of what they had accomplished thus far, even as many wondered how long they could sustain the energy and drive needed to keep their schools open. But the extent to which this reform will become systemic or will touch large numbers of those students traditionally served least well by the public education system is not yet clear.

In fact, it might be that the broadest possible impact of the charter school movement will be in moving the public education system further down the road toward privatization and quite possibly vouchers by forming hundreds of schools that are increasingly dependent on private funds and better able to control who attends and who does not. We should note that this is not the result that all charter school supporters desire. Thus the issues of exactly how the successes and failures of charter school reform are measured and who defines the lessons learned have become increasingly important.

The Salience of California

In 1992 California became the second state, after Minnesota, to pass charter school legislation. During the 1997-98 school year, California was second only to Arizona in the number of charter schools (with 130 as opposed to 241 in Arizona) and first in the nation in the number of students enrolled in charter schools - nearly 50,000 or almost one-third of the national total of 166,000. …

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