Academic journal article Education Next

Yellow Flag: The Charter School Movement Will Need to Overcome a Raft of Political Obstacles and High-Profile Scandals. (Forum)

Academic journal article Education Next

Yellow Flag: The Charter School Movement Will Need to Overcome a Raft of Political Obstacles and High-Profile Scandals. (Forum)

Article excerpt

SINCE 1991, 40 STATES HAVE ENACTED LAWS ALLOWING FOR THE CREation of charter schools--independent public schools of choice that are freed from many regulations but accountable for their results. There are now 2,700 schools that serve some 600,000 students in 34 states and the District of Columbia (see Figure 1), with cities like Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, now enrolling upwards of 17 percent of all their children in these new institutions.

While such numbers are impressive--a decade ago there were no charter schools--we also see worrisome indications that the charter movement is in trouble. In July 2002, Newsweek reported that a raft of recent charter "reports find that too often, charters haven't lived up to their end of the bargain," A Brookings Institution study released in September 2002 concluded that student performance in charter schools was significantly lower than that of district schools on state tests in reading and math.

At the same time, signs of a vital and thriving charter school movement abound, Nationally, demand for these schools remains high, with more than 75 percent of charters having waiting lists that together could fill at least 900 more schools. The parents, students, and educators involved with charter schools report high levels of satisfaction. A California State University, Los Angeles, study of California charters, released in March 2002, found that their test-score gains outpaced those of students in regular public schools. In Massachusetts, the test scores of charter schools on the Spring 2002 state test showed, according to the Boston Herald, "a greater number of improved scores ...with more and more of the [charters] scoring higher than their home districts." Even the Brookings study may say less than it seems. The investigators themselves acknowledge that their findings may be due to the fact that charters are attracting "students who were already low achieving", a suspicion supported by other studies th at find charter students to be relatively disadvantaged.

Not only are many charter schools enjoying success, but they are also held accountable in a way regular public schools are not, When a charter school experiences severe troubles, it usually faces severe consequences. To wit, more than 200 failed or failing schools have been closed on fiscal, educational, and organizational grounds.

Can Success Survive?

In the education world, however, success often breeds second-guessing if not downright resentment. The more traction a successful reform gains, the more sour grapes it harvests. Despite strong, bipartisan political support, charter schools have not been immune from this attitude, America's deeply conservative public education system is striking back at this disruptive innovation, which shifts power from producers to consumers; demonstrates that more can be done with less at the school level; and moves control of resources from central bureaucracies to autonomous schools. Such tectonic shifts bring new uncertainties and imply that many hoary public education practices are no longer the only imaginable way to do things.

The initial efforts to stop the spread of charter schools took three main forms: preventing the enactment of charter laws; limiting the number of new charters; and ensuring that existing charter schools were as meagerly funded and as heavily regulated as possible.

These strategies succeeded to some extent, For example, Washington State, among other states, still has no charter school law-mostly because of intense opposition from the teacher unions and other interests vested in the status quo. Among those states with charter laws on the books, more than a third have fewer than 20 charter schools in operation. In addition, the early growth of the charter movement may be reaching a plateau-in part due to the hostile tactics of charter opponents.

One by one, however, states continue to come on board, In 2001, Indiana passed a strong law that allows charters to be granted not only by school districts but also by public universities and by the mayor of Indianapolis. …

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