IN THE LAST five years, a new phenomenon has arisen within communities either frustrated with local education reform. Some reformers felt that site-based management wasn't going far enough - schools would have to break their ties with all other beauracracies in order to make sweeping reform decisions. If a school could be free to develop its own educational charter, perhaps it would be able to find more teaching success.
During the early 1990s, US states began to change laws in order to allow a community to break away from the state's school district systems and form their own charter school. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation authorizing charter schools, followed by California in 1992 and four other states in 1993. In order to form a charter school, a community must develop a charter that explains both management and teaching methods. The charter is then brought to the state department of education for consideration. If the charter is approved, the new charter school will be able operate on their own authority, autonomous from the local school district. Charter schools are considered public schools that are eligible for state and federal funds.
Charter schools are now legal in 37 states, with campaigns to change the laws in the other 13. In 1994, there were 108 charter schools in the US. By the 1998-1999 school year there were 1,205 charter schools in operation, with another 200 expected to open by next fall. New York state, for example, approved its first charters in June 1999 - two schools in New York City and one in Albany, slated to open this fall. Fifty-eight percent are elementary schools, 20% are high schools and 22% serve both. The Center for Education Reform estimates that between 250,000 and 300,000 students are currently enrolled in these charter schools, with an average of 250 charter schools per school. Approximately 10% of charter schools are managed by for-profit entities known as Education Maintenance Organizations (EMOs). The majority of charter schools have smaller enrollment levels when compared to public schools. According to the National Study of Charter Schools, more than 60 percent of charter schools enrolled less than 200 students in 1997-98, compared with 17 percent of all public schools.The median enrollment in all charter schools is 132 students, compared with 486 students in all public schools. In newly created charter schools, the median enrollment is even lower (111 students).
Many public school teachers, however, have expressed concern over the impact of charter schools. The National Education Association, though not completely opposed to charter schools, has voiced its worries over the movement:
Researchers still have no clear answers to questions about the role of charter schools in increasing student achievement. And some state charter laws, particularly those funding home schooling or distance learning, and those funding charters to fly-by-night companies, could harm students and threaten the integrity of public education. Equity issues are also a concern because some charter schools, for instance, either do not serve or they underserve the needs of bilingual students, or students who require special education. And in some states, charter school laws do not build the critical factors of oversight and accountability into the process, which is a recipe for disaster in such a deregulated environment. Finally, funding for charter schools has become controversial, particularly where local school districts lose funding to charter operators even when the need for services in the rest of district schools remains the same, as has happened in some suburban, rural and small urban districts.At the local level, some unions have raised the rhetoric even further. The Center for Education Reform recently reported that the Ohio Federation of Teachers has threatened to sue Ohio charter schools because they pose as "a leading threat" to public school education.
Because charter schools are such a recent phenomenon, the jury is still out whether they will be a long-term success. Syracuse University has opened a Charter Schools Research Center in the hopes of collecting and disseminating data regarding the successes and failures of charter school programs. The Clinton administration has thrown its support behind the charter school movement and is encouraging the creation of charter school-friendly laws in all 50 states.
I'd like to examine other reform styles.