Bipartisan Charter Schools

By Pipho, Chris | Phi Delta Kappan, October 1993 | Go to article overview

Bipartisan Charter Schools


Pipho, Chris, Phi Delta Kappan


Efforts to reform education by using ideas from the consumer marketplace have been gaining momentum in recent years. Some would credit such efforts to continued pressure from the conservative side of the political aisle, but the growth of the charter school movement seems to reflect bipartisanship. The unifying element in the acceptance of the charter school idea is the notion that schools need major change or systemic reform. Moreover, the idea of centralizing reform in state mandates seems to have fallen from favor, while the notion of giving teachers, parents, and community representatives a chance to propose new approaches seems to offer enough hope that a wide spectrum of legislators can support the idea.

Since Minnesota enacted the first charter school law in 1991, seven other states have approved a version of the idea. California passed the legislation in 1992, and Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Missouri did so in 1993. Generally, the laws permit local school boards to approve a charter (i.e., a contract) for a local school. Most states require that 50% of the teachers within a building approve the idea, and often the charter must be approved by 10% of teachers within the whole district. Most states ask that the school be nonsectarian and that it not discriminate in admissions or employment. Colorado specifies that home schools are not eligible. Since the charter school is designed to encourage a wide range of ideas, very few additional rules are mandated. Teachers are usually allowed to retain tenure or employment rights in their home district, but evaluation of the instructional program is open to design by the charter school applicants.

Interestingly, within the school establishment some of these ideas seem hard to understand. Following legislative approval in Colorado, the state board invited a large group of interested participants and school district representatives to discuss implementation and potential state board guidelines. Some of the school district representatives argued for strong accountability mandates, but the folks interested in writing charter proposals argued for no guidelines. The ensuing discussion was a microcosm of the debate over charter schools.

One interesting observation to emerge from the Colorado discussion was the speculation that perhaps school boards had enough control over buildings in their districts that they could have started charter schools without the state law. In fact, a discussion of Blueprint 2000 (a state plan to decentralize control of schools) in Florida led to this same conclusion, and the legislature chose not to pass a charter school law.

On the day of the bill-signing in Wisconsin, an information forum was scheduled in Cudahy by State Rep. Rosemary Potter. A member of the local school board had supported the charter school idea as it moved through the legislature and had publicly announced that he thought the district should encourage a charter school proposal. In this open meeting, public sentiment was decidedly against the charter school idea, primarily because it was viewed as a ploy to bring in private contractors to take over schools, push through job-reduction programs, and in general kill public education. The Wisconsin law calls for 50% of a building's teachers and 10% of a districts teachers to approve any charter prior to board approval.

The most interesting facts surrounding the charter school movement were turned up by Alex Medler, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States. He went back to look at party control of the executive and legislative branches in the eight states that have enacted charter school laws. In California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, Republican governors signed the legislation. In Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico, and Missouri, Democratic governors were in control. Only three of the legislative houses were controlled by Republicans, and 13 were controlled by Democrats. …

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