It is indisputable that most Americans are concerned with the quality of their schools. Solutions have been offered in various forms -- interdistrict open enrollment, magnet and alternative schools, publicly funded vouchers for private schools, and the latest of them all, charter school.
Charter schools have emerged in the early 1990s as a prominent and controversial school reform idea. In eight short years, the U.S. charter-school movement has produced about 1,400 schools in 37 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling over 350,000 students (Good & Braden, 2000). Many policymakers have already announced the success of charter schools, and local papers have written editorials favoring or disfavoring charter schools based on limited data. President Clinton has signed into law H.R. 2616, the "Charter School Expansion Act of 1998" and wants to triple the number of charter schools by the year 2010 (Clinton, 1998). George W. Bush wants to set aside $3 billion of federal money to support facilities for them (Vanourek et al. 1997). Whether we like it or not, policy decisions are being made on extant data. Hence, it seems critical to examine available data carefully to determine what conclusions can be supported.
In researching this article I read numerous journal articles and reports covering a full range of opinions, but relied most heavily on data from the following studies: SRI International evaluation of California's charter schools; the Western Michigan University's 2nd Evaluation of Michigan Charter Schools (Final Report, July 2000) by Jerry Horn and Gary Miron; the Hudson Institute (New York) report entitled "Charter Schools in Action" and the Educational Policy Analysis study of Ethnic Segregation in Arizona Charter Schools by Casey D. Cobb and Gene V. Glass. I chose the California, Arizona, and Michigan studies because these three states have the most charter schools with the largest student enrollment nationwide. Arguably, states with the most rapid growth in charter schools offer the most fertile ground for research (Schnailberg, 1999).
The paper provides both a tentative overview and evaluation of charter schools in four important areas: student achievement, student demographic, school funding, and finally, teacher efficacy and empowerment. It answers these vital questions: How well do charter schools perform? Do they meet expectations? Where are they failing? What challenges do they face? What policy implications can we generate from their success or failure?
The paper evaluates charter schools in the form of general judgments: Superior (S), Good (G), Meets Expectations (ME), Needs Improvement (NI), and Unacceptable (U) (Good & Braden, 2000). The paper stresses that it is not evaluating individual schools but charter schools as a group.
Overview and Evaluation of Charter School Effectiveness
The enabling legislation specifies that the primary reasons charter schools exist are for their purported ability to increase student achievement. Yet many evaluators lament the fact that achievement comparisons are limited primarily to standardized tests. With this important caveat in mind, we turn to a discussion of available evidence. Garn and Stout (1998) studied student achievement in charter and noncharter public schools but expressed concern about two issues: the Arizona Department of Education changed test mandates, and the sample size of schools in their study was too small to draw sound conclusions about student progress. In addition, they noted that given the quality of data from charter schools for at-risk students, they could not conclude that charter schools have made any significant inroads into improving test performance of at-risk students.
In Garn and Stout's report, there were originally 9 schools studied that were formerly proprietary schools (the authors reported achievement from 7 elementary schools). …