Charter Schools Expand

Will they encourage public school reform?

By Eric Rofes

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 216 cover

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley addressed the first national charter school conference last November, praising such schools for serving as laboratories for new educational methods. Riley cited New Visions Academy in Minneapolis for its impressive program helping young children with learning deficits to become able readers and strong students. He applauded New Visions for funneling what it had learned about teaching directly into the local public school system.

I sat in the audience recalling my interview with the director of New Visions just a few weeks earlier. When I asked him how the school was transferring its innovations back into the district schools, he insisted it wasn't happening and criticized the school district's failure to learn from charter schools' experimental methods. "There's an assumption that school districts are motivated to look for things that work and really will change what they're doing based on that," he told me, shaking his head. But "that just isn't the lay of the land..."

This is how things stand after the fifth year of charter schools. The Secretary of Education praises such programs for revitalizing local district schools, yet most of the programs are frustrated in their attempts to share knowledge with local schools. Teachers are left in the middle, torn between their desire to make a difference in young people's lives and their fears that this reform initiative, like many which have preceded it, will be nothing more than a flash-in-the-pan fad.

To date, charter schools have created viable educational options within public education, giving hope to thousands of parents, including many in low-income areas, that children can get a better education than the traditional public schools are providing. Charters have also occasionally inspired significant reforms within neighboring school districts; but to date the small number of existing charters have had little impact on the overall quality of urban education.

Charters do not share a single educational philosophy or curriculum focus. In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, parents seeking a smaller school environment for their middle school children formed a school with self-paced, interactive curricula. In Colorado, charters include traditional, back-to-basics schools, as well as "progressive education" programs: mixed-age groupings, cross-disciplinary programs, and use of the city as a classroom. In Minnesota, schools have been created to serve Native American students, high school dropouts, and deaf students.

What is a Charter School?

Charter schools are one form of school choice (which also includes magnet schools and choice within and between school districts). They are often cited as the leading edge of school reform in the 1990s.

State legislatures have crafted vastly different charter school laws, but typically they are founded by groups of parents, teachers, and community members seeking forms of schooling not offered by local district schools. The group pledges to achieve specific educational goals and applies for a charter to whatever public authority the legislature has designated—usually local school boards, state boards of education, or public colleges. If a charter is awarded, the group receives public funding on a per-pupil basis and is expected to enroll all interested students. If a charter is over-enrolled, admission is determined by a lottery.

Charters are less about innovations in teaching and more about innovations in how to organize public schooling. Charter schools can embrace non-traditional philosophies and new teaching methods more readily than traditional public schools. But their primary innovation is to change the governance structure of education, allowing entities other than traditional school districts to offer something which is considered "public education."

Emerging out of decentralizing trends, charters usually are independent of local district control and are free from many local and state regulations. Advocates argue for "strong" charter school laws, under which states create alternative chartering bodies, thus preventing local school boards from stifling the formation of charters in their area. In Michigan, local universities have authorized many charters. In Massachusetts, the state board of education rules on applications for new charters. Arizona offers a variety of options for groups seeking a charter, including the state board of education, a special state chartering board, and the local district.

In 1991, Minnesota was the first state to approve charter legislation and since then 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter laws, and over 700 charter schools have opened. Most charters are in six states which began approving charters in 1994 or earlier—Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota—but several states with more recent charter legislation are gearing up to produce a significant number of schools, such as Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Why Charters?

Contemporary schooling frequently fails to provide poor people with the education they need to prosper, and funnels far too many of them into a crumbling welfare system. While much of the rhetoric about the failure of public education is overblown and ideologically-driven, desperate conditions in inner-city schools make many progressive educators open to a variety of non-traditional reform measures. These include attempts such as charters, even though such efforts may be opposed by unions and raise conflict with the surrounding public school systems.

Supporters think of charters as refuges from a heavily bureaucratized system. Groups which feel poorly served by large urban systems—particularly African-Americans and Latinos—have founded charter schools after finding local schools unresponsive to their children's needs. Charters also tap into the desires of these and other groups to create schools more appreciative of their cultures. For example, the James T. Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin serves many African-American families; and the Oakland Charter Academy has many Latino students. Special education pupils (or their parents) such as drop-outs, hearing-impaired students, and pregnant teenagers hope that charters will offer more appropriate educational programs than exist in traditional schools.

Supporters of charters also argue that conventional schools lack adequate oversight and accountability to parents and the community. Advocates cite, for example, long-standing poor-performing schools that school boards have allowed to remain open without intervention. In addition, despite much research suggesting the wisdom of smaller school size and class size, public school districts continue to build facilities designed for 1,500 to 3,000 students. In contrast, almost all charter schools have fewer than 500 children, and many have fewer than 200. They allow educators and parents to create more intimate learning environments with stronger parental involvement. They also open school choice—now a privilege of the affluent—to low-income families.

Critics seem most concerned that there will not be proper oversight of charters, that charters will hire uncertified teachers and teachers who are not members of unions, and that charters will drain funds from traditional school systems. They cite examples of the few charters which have closed due to fiscal mismanagement or corruption, and some district-based public schools—primarily in rural, small town, and small urban areas—which have suffered jolting economic losses because many of their students have opted for charters. Opponents also worry that charters will exacerbate segregation of public education, which is already widespread due to segregated housing patterns and the practice of "tracking" students into separate groups within the same schools.

Charters pose both risks and opportunities for teachers. Many teachers who have felt frustrated in attempts to reform public schools have found in charters a means to rekindle their creative energies and to be part of creating innovative public schools. Others are drawn to charters by the offer of reduced bureaucracy, teacher empowerment, and philosophical coherence.

Yet local teachers unions frequently oppose charter legislation, seeing the schools as a mechanism for union-busting and for reducing teachers' incomes while increasing their workloads. While there is a risk that some charters will suffer from excessive staff burnout, and be unable to attract a stable pool of talented teachers, many charters report dozens of applicants for a single job opening.

Some oppose charters because they could lead policy-makers down a "slippery slope" towards privatization. Charters "use public money to advance a privately defined vision of education," says Harvard professor Gary Orfield. For-profit corporations have come to see charters as a mechanism through which they can create and operate public schools, and states such as Arizona and Michigan have welcomed their participation. To some, charters blur the line between public and private education because they are exempt from many regulations and may be chartered by a source other than locally-elected school boards.

What Effects are Charters Having on Public Education?

Conservatives advocate "school choice" and a "free market" in education as the solution to what they view as poor performance by the U.S. educational system. Yet many teachers, parents, and others who believe in public education view privatizing schools through vouchers as a great danger, possibly leading to education which serves the elite and responds largely to profit motives. Charter schools may provide a middle ground, offering parents choice while being available to all students in a local area.

But charters are only a tiny fraction of all schools in the United States, and by themselves are unlikely to radically change the quality of education, especially in large, poverty-stricken urban areas. For charters to make a real difference for millions of city dwellers, especially people of color, they will need to serve as an impetus to intensify reform in their neighboring school districts.

This perspective led me to undertake an eight-state study of how public school districts are responding to charters. Does the appearance of charter schools in a district force the other schools to shift into a competitive mode, vying for "customers" in the educational marketplace? With rare exception, school districts are neither responding with swift, dramatic improvements nor suffering terribly in the aftermath of charter school laws. Some are ignoring charters, a few are resisting them, and still others have been inspired to attempt mild and moderate efforts at systemic reform. In part, this is because most charters are in their first few years of operation and their effects may not yet be fully felt.

The responses of school districts affirm research showing how difficult it is for large, bureaucratic systems to change dramatically. Districts responding positively to charters are primarily in rural and suburban areas, and small cities. Many urban districts such as Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Oakland, and San Diego are too large to be affected by a handful of charters. In Denver, a lone charter middle school of under 100 students has existed within a district of 66,000 students until last year. Washington, D.C.—for all its highly-publicized problems with public schools—has only two small charter schools so far.

Other districts resist responding, even as charters attract students and considerable media attention. The arrival of a charter school in rural LeSueur, Minnesota, brought much public debate but a core group of teachers in the district high school dug in their heels and resisted administrative efforts to reform teaching and learning. The passage of charter legislation in Boston motivated that district to swiftly initiate its own program of small, semi-independent public schools, yet the vast system outside this narrow niche of pilot schools has remained unaffected. Sometimes the process of debating a proposed charter school serves as a catalyst for greater local participation in the democratic processes governing school districts and heightened awareness of school quality.

In a few places, districts have viewed charter legislation as an opportunity to improve their schools, and have made mild reform efforts due to them. Administrators in Lansing, Michigan, first saw charters as a distraction, then vowed to "out-charter the charters," once it became clear that they were losing thousands of students to local charters. School districts outside Phoenix opened additional back-to-basics theme schools in response to similarly-themed charters. In Madison, Wisconsin, school department leadership used chartering as the impetus to create a middle school serving an African-American neighborhood that had lost its school in the 1970s.

In suburban Denver, for example, several districts have chartered schools in order to offer families increased educational options. Reform-minded superintendents in Springfield, Massachusetts, Bartow County, Georgia, and San Carlos, California, have seen charters as an opportunity for improvement and innovation rather than a threat. The Phoenix High School District in Arizona is readying a plan which redesigns its courses, in large part motivated by charters in the area. One deputy superintendent in that district said: "I've been here seven years and we pretty much look today as we did seven years ago... But I can guarantee that next fall schools will look different."

What Say the Unions?

The nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA), says that the "NEA believes that charter schools can become change agents within public school systems by charting new and creative ways of teaching and learning. Or they can allow unprepared people to start schools and undermine education. Whether charter schools are a positive or negative force depends on how state charter laws are written and applied."

Andrea DiLorenzo, co-director of the NEA's Charter Schools Initiative, acknowledges that charters are on average smaller than other public schools; that they tend to have higher levels of parent involvement; and that "they have been successful in many instances in improving student attendance and the school climate."

But the NEA has many concerns. First, it worries that there is little oversight of charters to ensure that they meet state standards for student achievement. Second, charters could exacerbate inequality and segregation among students. In Minnesota, for example, DiLorenzo points out that half of charters enroll fewer than 20% students of color, while the other half enroll 80% or more. Third, once released from the requirements imposed on school districts, charters may fail to adequately serve special needs students. Fourth, existing private schools and for-profit schools may obtain public funding. And finally, teachers in charters may not become union members, and so could be faced with lower salaries and worse working conditions.—Marc Breslow

One superintendent in a rural district explained that, the day after charter legislation was passed in his state, he walked into a meeting with his district's principals and tossed on the table a copy of David Halberstam's The Reckoning (about the fierce competition among automobile makers), and said, "Who do you want to be—Honda or General Motors?" This superintendent used the "threat" of charters to address long-standing weaknesses in his district and motivate some of his complacent staff members. When the parents of more than 100 children applied to the charter school, the district immediately took action to improve a previously mediocre middle school.

During this early stage of charter development, some districts seem motivated to offer new programs, alter scheduling practices, and create thematic schools. All-day kindergarten is offered in Lansing, Michigan, and Mesa, Arizona, and an after-school program is offered in Williamsberg, Massachusetts. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, district administrators developed an environmental sciences middle school program, and Rochester, Minnesota, approved a Montessori-based program.

But only a handful of school districts have used charters as laboratories for educational innovation. This year the Denver Public Schools opened a charter school which it intends to use as an educational laboratory. In Boston, City on a Hill charter plans to initiate a formal collaboration with the Boston Public Schools. More commonly school districts take either a hostile stance to the charter school or adopt a hands-off policy which precludes collaboration.

Finally, the climates of nearby school districts are almost always altered by the appearance of charter schools in their midst. Charters allow families to opt out of the school district altogether without paying for private education. They have therefore shaken up the climates of public education in powerful ways. A superintendent in a rural district in Colorado, for example, talked of the tensions which came from the founding of a charter school in her area: "People who were very unhappy with the middle school founded the charter. So their earlier public relations was 'We're gonna set this up because the middle school stinks!' This was very broad-based, harmful..."

Yet a Massachusetts superintendent, who also had an "adversarial" charter school start-up in his district, felt differently: "The charter school was a wake-up call, like it or not... the competition forced us to look in a mirror and ask who we were, who we wanted to be, why these people had chosen to leave us, and what we were gonna do about it."

Teachers may be the ones who experience the greatest stress from the introduction of competition into public education. One social studies teacher in a Tucson area high school insisted: "I don't think we need the pressure at this school. We have extremely dedicated teachers. And I resent the attitude that change has to come from without, by competition, and that people who aren't certified... [will] make more of a difference than public school teachers... What drives us as teachers is love of our students, concern for their future..."

A fifth grade teacher in Denver echoed these sentiments, "I don't do my job based on thinking I have a competitor. I do it based on knowing that the child needs to grow up and have a good education to get somewhere. That's what motivates me." While charters initially kick up a great deal of controversy during the time policy-makers are crafting legislation and schools are being founded, once charters have become stable, their detractors become somewhat quieter, and a new equilibrium is reached with local traditional public schools.

Are Charters the Wave of the Future?

After only five years of the charter school experiment, it is too early to make sweeping statements of success or failure. The history of school reform is littered with examples of innovations that were prematurely evaluated, judged, and declared failures. Nevertheless, many charters have already shown that they have the ability to create quality educational programming, while serving as a stimulus—however muted—to reforms in surrounding school districts.

Unexpected benefits include the preservation of local schools in rural areas facing consolidation, the rebirth of the alternative schools popular in the 60s, and the expansion of culturally-based programs for Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. Among the unforseen negatives have been the administrative and financial difficulties of starting new schools, the dramatic loss of funding which a few districts have experienced as charters have been initiated nearby, and the contentiousness of the debates which some communities have experienced.

Those who argued charter schools would destroy traditional public schools have not seen their predictions come true. Likewise, those who insisted charters would save public education must also reconsider their expectations. Instead, charters are emerging as a valuable part of the larger school reform movement which, if given the chance, may improve the quality of the nation's traditional public schools.

Eric Rofes is a doctoral student in education at the University of California-Berkeley, studying interactions between school districts and charter schools throughout the United States.

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