Charter Schools: Threat or Boon to Public Schools?

A look at charter schools as an alternative to public education.

A little more than 10 years ago, charter schools didn't exist in the United States, except in the hopes and dreams of school-reform advocates. Now, more than 575,000 students across the nation are attending 2,700 charter schools. By that yardstick, the charter-school movement clearly is a success.

But the question that will determine the ultimate success of charter schools has not been resolved — are they educating children more effectively than traditional public schools? Studies of test scores have been inconclusive. Critics contend that charters have not lived up to their promises of innovation and performance, and often claim resources that otherwise would go to more deserving traditional schools.

Still, as constituents and politicians demand more accountability from schools, and dissatisfied parents seek more education options for their children, charter schools have become the most identifiable and popular effort for school reform and improvement.

“What charters have done is to create a more educated consumer,” says Kathleen Boyle Dalen, director of education policy development for the Learning Exchange, an education consulting organization in Kansas City, Mo. “Parents are beginning to weigh their options and holding schools accountable.”

The promise of choice

A charter school is essentially a promise. The schools assure the public that if they are freed from much of the restrictions that mire many public schools in bureaucracy, they will use taxpayers' money to provide students with a high-quality education. Typically, a charter is for three to five years, and if a charter school is not delivering on its promises, it will lose its charter and close down.

How charter schools come into existence varies from state to state. Thirty-nine states have enacted legislation authorizing charter schools (None has opened in Iowa, New Hampshire or Tennessee). In some jurisdictions, only local school districts authorize a charter; in others, colleges or universities, state education departments or boards, or municipalities can authorize a charter.

In the years since the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991, the schools have begun to establish a track record. And guess what? Just like traditional public schools, charter schools run the gamut from inspiring successes to disappointing failures.

But for charter schools, touted by many as a solution to the troubles that plague public education, the stakes are higher and the scrutiny is more intense. A traditional public school that is failing may continue to operate for years without providing an adequate education to students; a charter school that doesn't deliver on its educational promises has to shut its doors.

According to a study by the Center for Education Reform, an advocate of charters, 194 of 2,874 charter schools — 6.7 percent — have closed. Some experienced financial troubles, others were victimized by mismanagement, and others were not living up to academic standards.

Charter-school advocates don't view those failures as a setback for the movement.

“If a school is not academically successful, something is being done about it,” says Dean Kern, director of the public charter-school program for the U.S. Department of Education.

Dalen adds, “That level of accountability is exactly what we want to see for charter schools.”

In Texas, to lessen the chances of unqualified charter-school operators from opening schools, the state has established a more rigorous application and interview process for those seeking to open a charter school, says Patsy O'Neill, executive director of the Charter School Resource Center of Texas. Of 44 applicants in the most recent round, O'Neill says, the Texas Education Agency approved only two.

“Some of those earlier charters should not have been granted,” says O'Neill. The new interview procedure has made a big difference. The state is looking for quality, not quantity. I believe charter schools need a sound application process.”

Positive signs

The rapid rise in charter-school enrollment is an indication that many parents believe charter schools are working better than the schools they have left behind.

Parents may make the initial move to charter schools out of frustration and dissatisfaction with traditional public schools. But they won't keep their children in charters unless those schools are offering something students aren't getting in traditional public schools.

“It's competition,” says Susan Steelman Bragato, executive director of California Network of Educational Charters. “Charter schools are pushing and prodding non-charter schools to improve.”

Bragato noted that after a charter school in California established a successful international baccalaureate program, the local high school instituted a similar curriculum.

In just four years since charter schools opened in the Kansas City, Mo., district, they have enrolled nearly one-fifth of public school students — 6,685 of 33,924. Many of those schools have sizable waiting lists.

Dalen points out that although charter schools in Kansas City have attracted thousands of students away from traditional public schools, they also have brought 1,000 students back to public education from private institutions.

Research lacking

But for educators, the ultimate judge of effectiveness is data, and definitive information isn't there — most schools haven't been around very long, and because of the differences from state to state, it's difficult to make comparisons.

“We do not have a solid base of national research,” says Kern. “It's difficult to assess.”

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released a study in September 2002 that found test scores for students at charter schools lower than those at traditional public schools. But those scores were not enough to make judgments about the effectiveness of instruction in charters.

“With the data at hand, it is impossible to tell whether charter schools' test scores reflect the quality of education at the schools,” the Brown Center report states. “The study… cannot shed light on why charters score below average. One possible explanation is that charter schools are not doing a very good job. But an equally plausible explanation is that charters attract large numbers of students who are struggling in public schools before ever setting foot on a charter-school campus.”

Those skeptical of the charter-school movement fear that their existence may undermine traditional public schools without providing any significant improvement in education.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) issued a report earlier this year that called charter schools “a diversion… from reformers' and policymakers' efforts to improve education.”

The teachers' union contended that charter schools contribute to the racial and ethnic isolation of students, have less experienced and lower paid teachers, and “have not delivered on their promise to produce results.”

Charter advocates quickly responded that the AFT is biased against charters because the vast majority of them are not covered by union contracts.

Other critics say that charter schools have not been very successful in creating innovative educational programs that can be successfully replicated in public schools. Kern concedes that charter schools' efforts to establish best practices that can be used in other schools haven't been successful “to the extent we had hoped to see.”

Stirring things up

For good or bad, charter schools are changing the face of American education. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report examining those changes.

The study, Challenge and Opportunity: The Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts, looked at 49 school districts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Michigan. Researchers found:

  • Nearly half of district leaders said they had become more oriented to customer service and public relations after charter schools were established in their districts.

  • Most districts established new programs or changed their educational structures because of charter schools.

  • Nearly half of district leaders perceived that their budgets suffered because of students transferring to charter schools.

Districts that were not themselves a charter-granting agency were more likely to report that charter schools had a greater effect on their districts. Every district with declining enrollment said charters had a negative effect on the budget, while districts with growing enrollment were more likely to report no effect on district finances.

The attitudes in the survey suggest that although charter schools are taxpayer-financed public schools, public school officials perceive them as outside competitors. Charter advocates who emphasize greater choice for students hope that eventually people will see a charter school as just one of a wide array of diverse public school opportunities available to students.

“Our hope is that we get to the point where charter schools and traditional public schools are seen as being part of that diverse portfolio,” says Dalen. “We're not there yet.”

Sidebar: Charting the right path

Charter schools can be created in different ways, overseen by a variety of organizations, have various philosophies and academic focuses, and found in all types of facilities. None of those is a certain path to success, but most effective charter schools seem to share similar characteristics, according to Patsy O'Neill, executive director of the Charter School Resource Center of Texas.

The characteristics of successful charters:

  • Strong governance structure.

  • Rigorous curriculum.

  • Stable faculty and staff.

  • Extended-day schedule or after-school programs.

  • High parental involvement.

  • Financial and academic accountability.

Kathleen Boyle Dalen of the Learning Exchange in Kansas City, Mo., which works with charter schools in Kansas City and St. Louis, adds that one of the characteristics most important to a successful charter is strong, site-based governance.

She says that although traditional public schools have adopted site-based leadership in some cases, the local decisionmaking didn't come with any real budget authority.

“Unless budgetary authority comes down to the site level, site-level governance is not very meaningful,” says Dalen. “At the heart of it, the school has to be responsible for its own budget.”

Sidebar: Finding a home

Nearly all the elements are there: passionate and visionary educators, eager students, supportive parents, innovative curriculum, committed faculty members. But those factors may not be enough for a successful charter school if organizers can't find a suitable home.

Although charter schools receive per-pupil funding to operate their schools, in most cases they receive no money specifically for facilities. A survey conducted in 2001 by the Charter School Friends Network found that charters spend an average of 12 percent of their budget on loan payments or rent for school space.

“The facilities issues are very challenging,” says Kathleen Boyle Dalen of the Learning Exchange. “Here in Kansas City, the majority of charter schools need significant renovations. At some point, most folks want a building that works for them.”

Often, charter schools are forced to settle for space in vacant offices and commercial buildings, church basements, or shuttered public or private schools. Schools may be able to succeed in non-traditional settings, but not if those facilities are inadequate.

“They don't choose to be in less than ideal facilities,” says Patsy O'Neill of the Charter School Resource Center of Texas. “Nobody wants to have to deal with leaky roofs and bad plumbing.”

In Georgia, the Fulton County Charter High School for Mathematics and Science, in its second year of operation, has sued the county school district seeking additional funds so it can pay its rent and other operational costs. School officials contend that charter schools are underfunded and argue that under Georgia's charter law, districts should provide funding for building programs “where feasible.”

As charters gain more acceptance, the opportunities for capital funding may increase. In California, the $13 billion school bond issue approved in November included up to $100 million for charter school facilities; the $3.3 billion bond issue approved on the same day in the Los Angeles district was the first in California to include funds for expanding charter school facilities — $50 million.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

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