Some work out of trailers on shoestring budgets. Others pass
around blueprints for multimillion-dollar building projects.
Despite such differences, all the charter-school activists
meeting for their first national conference last week insisted that
they were part of the most important educational reform of the
But a final report card is not yet in on the charter
experiment, and some activists worry that its successes - and
failures - could prompt a backlash.
"Phoenix public schools are losing about $5,000 for every
student that chooses to come to my school. It's beginning to hurt,
and I'm afraid that there's a backlash coming," says Patty Shaw,
director of the Phoenix-based Intelli-School, a charter school for
Charter schools are publicly funded, and many are exempt from
regulations governing other public schools, including
collective-bargaining agreements with unions. They aim to innovate
and offer parents a choice.
"We are a teacher's license to dream," says Irene Sumida,
director of the Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace,
Calif. With an annual budget of $7.4 million and a Power Mac on
every fifth-grader's desk, Fenton is a textbook case for what new
ideas and resources can do in tough neighborhoods.
"Eighty percent of our students are Hispanic, 15 percent are
African-American, and 60 percent have limited English proficiency.
We have a 99 percent attendance rate, and last May we were named
one of California's distinguished schools," she adds. Services
include literacy training for parents, parenting courses for
students, and, when needed, a free ride to court.
"For far too long this nation has tolerated giving young
people, especially in our large cities, a third-class education.
This is why ... we are so encouraged by the work you do," Education
Secretary Richard Riley told some 800 activists in Washington on
More funds from Congress
Since the first one in 1991, some 750 charter schools have
opened, and lawmakers expect to approve at least $80 million to
In Arizona, some 30,000 students, or about 5 percent, now
attend charter schools. By next year, that number should jump to
40,000 or 50,000, state officials say. Florida aims to be the
first state with public school choice in every district.
"We have 40 ... charter schools, and our legislature has
required all 67 districts to have a plan to expand public school
choice within the year," says Florida Education Commissioner Frank
Preliminary studies on the charter-school experience suggest
that charters are popular with parents, teachers, and students.
Children do well in many of them.
But there are no comprehensive studies on whether this new
wave of charter schools has actually raised student performance or
prompted reforms in public schools, and experts say that the
hurdles for new charter schools are formidable.
"Applicants commonly underestimate dramatically the business
expertise required to run a charter school," says Lawrence Pierce,
who just completed a two-year study on charter-school
accountability in six states for the University of Washington's
Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). …