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.”