The charter-school movement is gaining momentum as parents seek educational options. By fall, more than 250,000 students will attend more than 800 such schools in 31 states.
A sudden surge in the number of charter schools during the last two years is transforming the business of public education. The growth is sparked by parents dissatisfied with their youngsters' public schooling and by entrepreneurs eager to provide a better education, often for profit.
Charter schools are supported by federal and local funds but run by private managers -- the "charter" granted by local or state school authorities for three to five years. To obtain a charter, applicants usually need to provide a suitable building, a curriculum and proof of financial resources to cover start-up costs. Since 1991, when the first such school opened its doors in Minnesota, 31 states have authorized the establishment of charter schools. By fall, more than 250,000 youngsters will be enrolled nationwide.
"We have a revolution going on, and no one knows about it," says; Mike Peabody, co-president of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS, a group dedicated to improving education opportunities in Washington. The Center for Education Reform ranks Arizona's charter law, enacted in 1994, first in the country in terms of "expansiveness," with Michigan second and Washington third. It rates the laws of Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia as most restrictive. In May, Milwaukee became what is believed to be the first municipality in the country with the power to create charter schools that operate outside the public-school system. Several city-sponsored charter schools could be in business by fall.
Applicants and operators of charter schools are a varied group, including corporate sponsors such as Ford as well as public schools, parents, teachers and universities. The schools differ widely in instructional focus and procedures, but more am 40 percent of 261 charter-school respondents to a 1996-97 survey indicated that they stressed traditional, "back to-basics" learning or a core-knowledge curriculum. Others emphasize thematic instruction such as music or the arts or public policy. There are charter schools for special education, math, science, high technology, bilingual education and foreign language. Still others are alternative Montessori schools, while some promote "school-to-work' programs
The diversity of approach among charter schools is demonstrated by the huge gap that exists between instructional operations at Eddie Farnsworth three charter schools in Arizona and a National Education Association, or NEA, charter school in Norwich, Conn. Farnsworth, a corporate lawyer who heads the Arizona Charter School Association, was motivated to start a charter school because of the "rough environment" at a school his children attended. The three schools he now operates, all of which go by the name Benjamin Franklin Charter School, are traditional, safe, structured and focused on scholastics, according to Farnsworth. "We don't allow gangs or cussing, and kids are not allowed to run rampant."
In contrast, Andrea DiLorenzo, charter-school coordinator for the NEA, says the NEA charter school in Connecticut fosters independent study. She says the school, which accepts children in grades kindergarten through six, keeps children together in the same class for several years so they can "work together on research projects."
"The basic concept of charter schools is accountability for results, not regulation," says Theodore Rebarber, vice president for education at Advantage Schools Inc., a private firm that manages charter schools in Phoenix and Rocky Mount, N.C., with five more scheduled to open this fall. According to Rebarber, charter schools tend to attract a slightly higher percentage of students who are low-income or slightly behind academically. "These are children of parents who are looking for options" he says. …