Charter Schools: Hype or Hope?
CHARTER SCHOOLS HAVE BECOME a mainstay of education reform in the United States. There are now over one million students attending over 3,300 charter schools in the vast majority of states throughout the nation. In many states, the number of students enrolled in charter schools is substantial. Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Texas have over 80,000 charterschool students and California tops the list with over 219,000.1 Charter schools continue to attract the attention of scholars and policy makers, many of whom support charter schools fervently, and many of whom oppose charter schools with equal passion.
The mantra of today's world of education research is “evidence-based reform”—the desire to find out what really works and then to build schools on a stronger foundation, cutting through the ideologies, the hype, and the (often inflated) hopes that have historically driven so much of the education research and the education-reform “industry.” At the same time, the push for charter schools shares a different mantra: that through the expansion of choice and competition, the “magic of the market” can be tapped to enable charter schools to provide better educational alternatives, raise student achievement, and leverage change across the entire system of schooling in the United States.
These two trends—one demanding rigorous evidence and the other demanding more charter schools—may be on a collision course. We believe that the push for charter schools—like so many other school reforms past and present—has been characterized by too many promises that are only, at best, weakly supported by evidence.
As we noted in the opening chapter, even the most basic descriptions of charter schools are often infused with hype. In turn, the creation of charter schools has become more than a reform; it has become a move- ment. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that we find charter schools are associated with high hopes on the part of policy makers looking for better schools and trying to avoid infusing large amounts of money into existing (and failing) schools and school bureaucracies. Perhaps even more importantly, the charter-school movement has instilled high hopes among parents who, all too often, rightly feel that their children are being ill served by traditional public schools and who are desperate for better alternatives.