Charter Schools: Time to Clear the Obstacles

By Peirce, Neal R. | Nation's Cities Weekly, November 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Charter Schools: Time to Clear the Obstacles


Peirce, Neal R., Nation's Cities Weekly


Across America, the charter school movement - a wave of new public schools held accountable for the performance for their students - is thriving. This fall there are some 375 charter schools operating in 27 states.

But a dark cloud hangs over the movement. In state after state, local school boards and teacher unions are trying to quash charters.

The reason: The spirited, upstart charter schools - usually created by groups of teachers, parents or local colleges - are a threat to established school bureaucracies and unions' exclusive bargaining rights.

Reports the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute: "Charter schools may be the most vibrant force in American education today. They are also a subversive influence with the potential to do great harm to the status quo and great good to children."

Hudson quickly rebuts opponents' charge that charters are elitist enclaves that simply siphon top students from regular public schools. In its sampling of 42 charter schools in seven states, Hudson found 63 percent of the 8,400 students were minorities.

The University of Minnesota's Joe Nathan, in his just released book, "Charter Schools" (Jossey-Bass), reports that many charter schools are organized to serve students who were below-average performers or abject failures at their prior schools.

A prime example is the four-year old City Academy in St. Paul, which only accepts dropouts from elsewhere - many students explaining "I didn't think anyone cared" or "I was too far behind." Most are low-income and minority youth.

But the City Academy has created an atmosphere of respect and high expectations. It has a waiting list of applicants. It easily won rechartering by local authorities last year, based on excellence in performance.

Charter schools, Hudson reports, are drawing talented, unconventional teachers. It found parents and students are attracted by charter schools' atmosphere of rigorous academic expectations, safety, committed teachers and "family-like" feeling.

Across America, that story is being repeated. Nathan cites pioneers like Rexford Brown, who founded and runs PS1, an award-winning Denver inner city charter school. Or Richard Farias, a community center leader and advocate for Hispanic kids in Houston, who in fact has local teacher union support in his bid to open a charter school.

Yet 375 charter schools nationwide are a drop in the bucket in contrast to the need for lively new schools with a capacity to gain kids' attention and loyalty.

Nathan cites cases from over a dozen states, spread from Massachusetts to California, Michigan to Nevada, in which unions or school boards have exerted political muscle to prevent charter schools altogether, put a strict limit on how many can be created, or restrict sponsorship to local boards. …

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