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More and More States Embrace Charter Schools

More and more states embracing latest wave in education reform. President Clinton calls for 3,000 charter schools by next century; we're one-quarter of way there.

Charter schools are popping up across the country at an increasing rate, dotting the educational landscape like dandelions in springtime. At last count (January 1998), 775 charter schools had been established, and scores more are approved every week. The increase is by design: at the beginning of the school year, a $4.4 million federal grant program was established to meet the growing demand of launching public charter schools.

"Every state should give parents the power to choose the right public school for their children," President Clinton said in making the grant announcement. "Their right to choose will foster competition and innovation that can make public schools better. These funds will continue our plan to help America create 3,000 charter schools by the next century."

Whether charter schools are prompting improvements in conventional public schools remains to be seen, but one study indicates that teachers, students, and parents are happy with the quality of the educational experience provided by charter schools. The final report of the Charter Schools in Action Project, a survey conducted by the Hudson Institute of nearly 5,000 charter schools students in grades 5 and above, reports these findings:

  • Charter schools are havens for children who had bad educational experiences elsewhere, such as low-income children, "at-risk" children, minority children and children with learning disabilities and behavior problems.

  • Charter schools are very popular with their primary constituents: their students, parents, and teachers. Pupils are interested in their schoolwork, pleased with their teachers, and likely to return next year. Their parents are satisfied and engaged. Their teachers value what the school is doing, enjoy working in it, and believe it is succeeding.

  • Families and teachers are seeking out charter schools primarily for educational reasons: high academic standards, small classes, a focus on teaching and learning, educational philosophies that are closer to their own, and innovative approaches to instruction.

  • Satisfaction levels are highest for all three groups when it comes to educational matters (curriculum, teaching, class size, etc.) and lowest when it comes to non-educational matters (food, facility, sports, etc.), indicating that charters are deploying their limited resources on "the basics."

  • The teachers feel empowered. Charter school teachers are a diverse lot, but nearly all are finding personal fulfillment and professional reward.
Exactly what are these educational havens? Like traditional public schools, charter schools are operated with public funds and are tuition-free. Yet although the establishment of charter schools must be approved by local school boards in most states, the charter schools have a great deal of autonomy, deciding how to spend their money and what to teach.

Are they successful in providing a better education? Although, as in the aforementioned study, students and parents may be happy with the experience, whether they are successfully educating students is difficult to measure, partly because of the immense diversity among charter schools. For example, a proposed school in Washington, D.C., for students in grades 9 to 11 will integrate the work world with a traditional academic setting by having students work in restaurants and engage in other workplace experiences. At the proposed International Charter School of New England in Wellesley (Massachusetts), students will be required to learn French as well as a third language. Across the country in California, where reportedly one-third of the nation's charter schools are located, the Choice 2000 On-Line School teaches lessons over the Internet.

The issue is further complicated by matters of finances and management. Sprinkled among the numerous headlines announcing the approval of new charter schools are articles reporting financial woes and problems complying with regulations. In an article stating that Arizona's Alternative Learning Charter School would be filing for bankruptcy, the Arizona Daily Star reports that 3 percent of that state's 250 charter schools have shut down for financial reasons.

"It is just very difficult to get them off the ground, let alone keep them running," said Lynn Maher, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, in an article about two Hudson County charter schools scrambling for survival amid charges of mismanagement (The Record, Jan. 9, 1998). "People go into them very enthusiastically, but then there is the day-to-day grind."

Still, proponents push ahead. According to the Hudson Institute, more than 100,000 youngsters attended charter schools during the 1996-97 school year, and the 1997-98 enrollment is expected to approach 170,000. The number is sure to increase in as we approach the next century. As with any new venture, there are mistakes to be made, lessons to be learned, and successes to be reported. There is also much room for debate on both sides of the fence. Whether you're involved in starting or operating a charter school or forming a posse to run them out of town, there are others who have gone before you and who are sharing their knowledge on the Internet. Below are some of the most comprehensive sites plus a selection of other useful resources on the Web.


  • Education Week's Issues Page on Charter Schools Numerous articles on charter schools have been written by this weekly, and all are gathered on one page devoted to the issue. Also includes links to articles elsewhere on the Web, suggested reading on charter schools, and links to related organizations.

  • Charter School Research This interactive Web site hosted by AskERIC includes a listing of charter schools on the Web, a discussion area, a listing of online citations, a place to add new links and a listserv/discussion group.

  • U.S. Charter Schools The site, developed by WestEd in collaboration with the California State University Institute for Education Reform and the U.S. Department of Education, includes state-specific information, information on starting and running a charter school, and a resource directory.

  • President Clinton's plan for Charter Schools

  • Charter Schools Issue Brief Answers to three questions -- What are charter schools? Why are charter schools important? What do we know so far? -- from the Education Commission of the States.

  • About Charter Schools A resource page created by the Center for Education Reform. Includes "The Charter School Workbook: Your Roadmap to the Charter Movement," which looks at where the charter school movement is, state-by-state, and where it's headed.

  • A Cautionary Word About Charters A special report from the American Association of School Administrators.

  • Charter School Study A U.S. Department of Education study.

  • Charter Schools and Special Education Handbook Information on the law and and related issues regarding special education and charter schools.

Article by Colleen Newquist
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World