Since Minnesota first enacted legislation in 1991, charter school reform has swept the country. Within the span of eight years, thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have passed charter legislation, and many other state legislatures are now considering proposed bills. Charter schools are unequivocally public entities—they must provide a free education to all eligible public school students and they are funded by public moneys, often based upon a per pupil expenditure from the state. But charters blur the boundary between “public” and “private” schools in a few different ways. First, they are similar to private schools in that they are schools of choice with distinct missions. Second, charter schools are autonomously managed by groups of parents, teachers, or community members; but unlike private schools, they are under contract with a public agency. Finally, charters are freed from many bureaucratic structures governing public schools at the state and local levels; they make most of their own decisions about budget, personnel, and curriculum.
Because charter schools blur traditional boundaries between public and private schools in a variety of ways, they revive questions of balancing public and private interests in education which we in the United States have struggled with since public education became compulsory early in the twentieth century. In large part because of tensions particular to this public/private struggle, debate about charter schooling has been lively, and often heated and contentious. Many supporters tout charters as the best hope for public education, while equally vocal critics insist that charters will bring about its demise. 1
Although their stances are vastly different, both proponents and opponents of the movement emphasize the privatizing aspects of charter school reform. Proponents draw heavily upon language associated with the marketplace. They refer to students and parents as consumers and clients, play up the attributes of bringing competition into the public educational