Unhappy with the education their children are getting in public schools, some parents are taking matters into their own hands. For a few, the solution is home schooling.
Others are finding the financial resources to send their children to private schools. And a growing number are taking advantage of laws in their states that allow parents, teachers or others in the community to operate “charter” schools within the public school system.
These small, innovative academies are generally freed from many curriculum requirements and from such constraints as local teacher salary scales and collective-bargaining agreements. They are free to hire their own teachers and experiment with new teaching techniques. The idea is to relieve schools of bureaucratic burdens so that they can focus on students' educational needs.
“The [charter-school] movement was founded on the premise that when you eliminate red tape and give the principal decision-making power and encourage parents' input, that's an equation for success,” says Joe McTigue, executive director of the Council for American Private Education.
Advocates believe competition from charter schools will stimulate public schools to be more innovative and more responsive to parents' concerns. “Competition from charter schools is the best way to motivate the ossified bureaucracies governing too many public schools,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn., wrote recently.
Since the early 1990s, 33 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation authorizing charter schools. More than 1,200 charter schools are in operation nationwide, and another 200 have been approved to open next year.
Many charter schools target students at-risk of falling through the cracks in traditional public schools. For instance, the Apple School in Lakeland, Fla., serves more than 100 children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “Most charter schools target a specific population of kids,” says Lakeland's administrator, Roy Williams.
Charter schools have drawn fire from some in the public school community. Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, says he supports the charter-school concept but opposes “permissive” laws that “grant charter status not just to legitimate public schools but also to existing private schools, to home-schoolers and even to individuals and for-profit companies with no track record whatsoever in education.” The charter-school movement is being used to get “back door funding for schools that remain effectively private by relabeling them 'charters,' ” Chase says.
The Center for Education Reform, which tracks and assesses charter-school laws in the states, insists the only way such schools can succeed is if the laws authorizing them contain few restrictions. This is the only way to guarantee that charter schools won't be regulated to death, the group says. “Yet today,” the center notes in its latest report, “some charter-school laws are voluminous, reflecting the growing alarm felt by many in traditional public education venues toward this new form of public school.”
The center's report also criticizes communities for imposing new restrictions on charter schools. It points to Tucson, Ariz., as an example. “Having failed to ward off charters in their city, the [Tucson] City Council amended municipal zoning requirements to prohibit the opening of any new charter school not located on at least five acres or not having approved traffic patterns in place,” the report says.
It's a common practice, notes Tracy Bailey, who oversees Florida's charter schools. “We call it regulatory reloading.”
There have been no nationwide studies to date that evaluate whether charter schools are more effective at educating students than traditional public schools. “It is still too early for a comprehensive report on the impact of charter schools, but so far results are encouraging,” Lieberman wrote. He cited studies in Massachusetts and Minnesota showing students in charter schools surpassing state academic standards.
The Center for Education Reform's recent report also offers anecdotal evidence of charter schools' success, including test scores from students at two charter schools in California - Horizon Instructional Systems in Lincoln and the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in San Fernando - that far exceeded district averages.
Arizona has 311 charter schools, more than any other state; 6 percent of Arizona's public school students are enrolled in charter schools this year. But a recent state evaluation found that students in charter schools “are not performing very differently from [students in] regular public schools.” In math, students in traditional public schools showed gains equivalent to students in charter schools. By middle school, students attending charter schools for one or more years lagged behind students in regular schools, and the lag widened among high school students.
Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction and an outspoken advocate of charter schools, puts a positive spin on the findings. The lags in achievement may be attributed to the fact that many charter schools focus on potential dropouts or other students who are failing in regular schools, she says.
Those students “tend to start at a lower point,” said Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, which conducted the study.
The study did offer clues about why charter schools are so popular: 79 percent of Arizona parents with children in charter schools felt their children were performing better academically, and 77 percent said their children had better attitudes about learning. Eighty-three percent of students in charter schools said they were doing better than at their previous school, while 77 percent liked their teachers better.
NEA's Chase remains cautious. “I think there may be some merit in charter schools,” he says. “My concern is that there is no silver bullet to improving schools. Yet there is this headlong rush into charter schools, especially in states like Arizona.”
Chase says it is unfair for the states and federal government to pass legislation demanding increased accountability and improved test scores from the public schools - and basing teacher tenure and employment on those results - while exempting charter schools and private schools from those same requirements.
“People say the reason we need charter schools is that there is less regulation,” he complains. “But you have legislatures that pass charter-school legislation today and then pass legislation increasing the amount of regulation of public schools.”
“If public schools are overregulated, then why do they keep regulating them?”, he asks.