Why Charter Schools?
Despite nearly a decade of intense reform efforts, few believe thepublic schools have experienced substantive and lasting improvement. The current system is often portrayed as bureaucratic, outdated, andbadly in need of radical restructuring. Aligned with this perspectiveis a belief in the power of local control-the idea that those closest tothe locus of educational activity (i.e., parents, teachers, buildingadministrators) are in the best position to make critical decisionsabout teaching and learning. Charter school advocates argue that schoolpersonnel, if freed from stifling state and local regulations, would beable to create more innovative and personal learning environments thatcould better meet the needs of all students.
The appeal of this new educational delivery system is largely based on acommon set of beliefs and assumptions about the efficacy of charterschools:
- Charter schools encourage innovation because they operate as independent and legally autonomous entities. As such, charter schools are in a position to empower educators and parents to make instructional andplanning decisions that best meet the needs of students. Charterschool personnel not only make these decisions but they are also heldlegally liable for them. Because the liability rests directly with thecharter school, there is no external body limiting or restrictinginnovation and experimentation.
- Charter schools are more accountable and focus on results. Becausecharter schools agree to be held to stricter standards ofaccountability, they are exempted from all state and local laws with theexception of those related to health, safety, and civil rights. Unlikemore traditional schools, charter schools are subject to closure, andpersonnel must agree to resign if designated student outcomes are notachieved. The focus is on educational results rather than processes orinputs.
- Charter schools expand public school choices for all, but particularlyfor students at risk. Charter schools expand educational opportunitiesfor teachers, students, and parents by providing an alternative totraditional public schools. Teachers are afforded the option of usingmore innovative instructional strategies and participating in schooldecision-making. Parents have a wider range of educational options fortheir children and enjoy greater opportunities to participate in schoolmanagement and planning. Charter schools also seek to increaseeducational opportunities for at-risk students who have beenunsuccessful in traditional school settings and have historically hadfew alternatives or "real" choices.
- Charter schools provide new and increased professional opportunities for teachers. In contrast to traditional public schools, charter schoolsinvolve teachers directly in all aspects of curriculum development,planning, and management. In exchange for a greater investment in timeand energy, teachers gain a greater sense of school pride and ownershipin the instructional program.
- Charter schools require little or no additional money and few resourcesto implement or sustain. Charter schools are a financially attractivereform strategy for two reasons: 1) they keep public funds within thepublic system, and 2) they are viewed as relatively cost-free. Moreover, charter schools do not require the creation of a standardsboard or oversight body and actually reduce the size of administrativebureaucracy at the school level.
- Charter schools act as a catalyst for improvement throughout the publicsystem. Charter schools have to actively compete with other public (andperhaps private) schools for students. If a charter school is unable toproduce results, it risks losing the support of parents and students. Likewise, more traditional public schools are also pressured to competefor students and to respond more effectively to parents and students. In addition, charter schools are likely to promote improvement byserving as models of innovation and best practice.
Translating beliefs and assumptions into practice has never been an easyor smooth process. Charter schools are no exception. Charter schoollegislation varies tremendously from state to state and the result hasbeen a set of schools that are as different from each other as they aresimilar. Some charter schools are legally and financially independentwhile others maintain close ties with their sponsoring districts. Someserve special needs populations (i.e., at-risk students, students withdisabilities) while others appeal to more "mainstream" student groups. Together, charter schools encompass a wide variety of instructionalprograms and organizational models. One thing charter schools do shareis a committed group of educators, parents, and community members whowant control over the critical educational decisions affecting the livesof their students.
It is still far too early to tell whether charter schools will providequality and equitable educational choices and opportunities for allstudents. But we are starting to move beyond theory and learn somethingabout charter schools in practice. Research findings have emerged fromcharter school sites in California, Colorado, and Minnesota, providingsome clues about the issues charter schools are confronting in planningand implementation. Even with this new information, however, we areonly beginning to understand the impact of charter schools on students,teachers, parents, and the public education system as a whole. What wedo know is that a number of common issues and challenges have arisen asorganizers wrestle with transforming a vision for charter schools intopractice.
Although charter schools were initially conceived as legally andfinancially autonomous institutions, in policy and practice theirautonomy varies dramatically. The "strongest" legislation is found inArizona, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota, all ofwhich authorize legally independent charter schools (Bierlein &Mulholland, 1994a). Here schools can operate unconstrained by state andlocal regulations, controlling their own budgets, personnel, curriculum,and instructional strategies. In a few of these states, however,charter schools can and have chosen to seek less autonomy and remainclosely connected to their sponsoring district. In states with "weaker"legislation, charter schools must remain legally part of a schooldistrict and are often afforded no greater autonomy than traditionalpublic schools.
State laws can influence autonomy in a variety of ways. Provisions forlegal status, approval, funding, and exemption from rules all affectcharter school autonomy (General Accounting Office, 1995). Moreover,issues of autonomy can significantly impact working relationshipsbetween charter schools and their local districts.
A charter school's legal status has a tremendous impacton the school's ability to exercise control over educational planningand programs. While a number of state laws automatically grant charterschools legally independent status, other states require charter schoolsto remain legally tied to a school district. In California, a charter'slegal status is subject to negotiation by the school's organizers andthe sponsoring district.
Approval and appeals processes
A majority of states require that charter schools seek sponsorship and approval from their local boards of education. Laws in Hawaii, New Mexico, and Massachusetts, however, require sponsorship and initial approval at the state level. A few states require final state board approval after initial approval is granted by a local board. Nearly half the states allow charters toappeal, typically to the state board of education, if they have beenrejected at the local level (Bierlein & Mulholland, 1994b). Whenautonomy is negotiable, the requirement of local approval has alloweddistricts to use their leverage to push for less autonomous charterschools. In California, for example, it was determined that districtswere least supportive of charter schools seeking the most autonomy(Dianda & Corwin, 1994).
In a majority of states, the amount of state and local fundingis subject to negotiation between the school and the sponsoringdistrict. When funding is subject to negotiation, monies typically flowthrough the district to the charter school. In Arizona, Hawaii,Michigan, and Minnesota, funding is set by the state and not subject tonegotiation. Here funds are disbursed directly to the charter school,bypassing the district entirely. In instances where funding isnegotiable, autonomy can be limited if the district seeks to retaincontrol over funds as a condition of the charter's approval (GAO, 1995).
State laws that provide for legally independent charter schools typically provide a "blanket" exemption from all state and local codes (with the exception of health, safety, and civil rights protections). In states that require charter schools to remain legally part of a district, the schools are subject to district rules and must apply for exemptions on a "rule by rule" basis (GAO, 1995). When waivers are required, as in California, districts can and sometimes do exercise control and limit charter school autonomy by denying certain exemptions (Dianda & Corwin, 1994).
Roles and relationships
The processes that ultimately define autonomy,and those that authorize charter schools in particular, have beencharacterized as "adversarial" and can have a divisive and polarizingeffect on relations between charter schools and local districts,particularly when charter schools must seek local approval or workclosely with districts to provide services to students. Approvalguidelines can promote an "us-versus-them" mentality by requiringcharter schools to argue they can offer an alternative and implicitly"superior" educational setting for district students. Moreover, thevery demand for charter schools implies dissatisfaction with moretraditional schools, which is likely to produce tensions betweentraditional public school supporters and charter school organizers(Huston et al., 1995). Not surprisingly, charter schools that pose theleast threat to the stability of the current system-either by appealingto special needs populations instead of the "mainstream" student base orby seeking less autonomy and control-encounter less district resistanceand gain approval more readily (Minnesota House of Representatives,1994; Dianda & Corwin, 1994).
Given this context, the delineation and clarification of roles andresponsibilities between charter schools and districts have producedconflicts. In most cases, both legally autonomous and semi-autonomouscharter schools continue to rely on their local district for some formof support and services. Since state laws do not outline a formalprocess for charter schools to interact with their local districts,these schools and districts are in the difficult and unfamiliar positionof defining and redefining their relationship.
Issues of transportation and special education have generated the mostrole ambiguity and conflict. This is particularly true in Minnesotawhere relationships between charter schools and districts have beenlabeled "somewhat tentative" and range from neutral to antagonistic(Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994, p. 49).
Under Minnesota law, the district is required toprovide transportation for students who live in the district and attenda charter school. If a student lives outside the district, the studentor parent must provide transportation to the district boundary. Theseprovisions have posed problems for both the charter school and thedistrict. Charter school organizers are frustrated because they areforced to coordinate their calendar and school hours with the district'stransportation schedule, thereby restricting the possibility ofinnovative scheduling. Districts, on the other hand, are frustratedwith a general lack of communication about the number and location ofstudents that require transportation to charter schools. Moreover,requests to transport students from all corners of the district boundaryhave proved costly and time consuming (Minnesota House ofRepresentatives, 1994).
The delivery of special education services alsoraises a unique set of problems for charter schools and their districts. In Minnesota and elsewhere, charter schools have been caught off guard,unfamiliar with intricate funding processes and unprepared to providethe assessment and services special education students need. Somecharters schools simply assume their sponsoring district will provideany required services and, consequently, make few provisions of theirown. Districts, already overextended and underfunded, are oftenreluctant to provide services and resources. Again, this issue can becomplicated by a lack of communication or a well-defined process forinteraction. In each case it is necessary for the charter school to workwith the district to provide services or hire additional personnel todeliver services at the school site (Minnesota House of Representatives,1994).
All states are struggling with ways to ensure proper oversight andaccountability for charter schools without inhibiting innovation. Concerns focus not only on the nature and scope of designated outcomesbut also on the need to provide adequate monitoring to ensure thatcharter schools are in fact being held accountable.
A recent GAO report (1995) found that accountabilityplans for charter schools vary considerably-not only in content but inquality. Plans for charter schools across the nation include a widevariety of student assessments and student outcomes. While someperformance measures are negotiated between school organizers and thesponsoring body, others are mandated by the state. A number of schoolsare experimenting with alternative and more "authentic" forms ofassessment, including student portfolios and demonstration projects. Atthe same time, many charter schools continue to include standardizedachievement testing as all, or part, of their assessment plan.
In addition, student outcomes vary and include a wide variety ofobjective and subjective standards. Objective outcomes includespecified gains on standardized tests, attendance, and graduation rates,while subjective outcomes focus more on students' ability to workindependently and understand the responsibilities associated withcitizenship (GAO, 1995).
Variations in quality rather than content, however, have generated themost concern. Researchers note that some accountability plans aredetailed and already in place, while others-including some for charterschools open and operating-are still being developed and describestudent outcomes in the very broadest of terms (GAO, 1995). Similarly,an examination of Minnesota contracts revealed that, in some instances,both outcomes and assessments "could be improved" (Minnesota House ofRepresentatives, 1994, p. 52).
Role of sponsoring body
In Minnesota (and several other states) it isthe responsibility of the sponsoring district to ensure that outcomesare included in the charter contract. Although school boards reservethe right to cancel a charter's contract if the school is not meetingdesignated outcomes, it is not clear whether school boards are willingor able to adequately evaluate charter school outcomes and the degree towhich students successfully meet those outcomes. Further, if thesponsoring entity is deemed responsible for holding charter schoolsaccountable, they may increasingly be reluctant to sponsor new schoolsgiven the amount of time and resources needed for an evaluation of thiskind (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994).
The collection of baseline data is viewed by some asessential to evaluations of charter schools and to the determination ofwhether charter schools are more effective in educating students thantraditional public schools (Huston et al., 1995). Moreover, thereporting of data by certain categories (i.e., race, sex, socioeconomicstatus) is critical to determining the progress of specific studentgroups. No state laws currently require the collection of baselinedata, and some include no reporting requirements. In fact, most statelaws encourage local discretion with regard to the type of data reported(GAO, 1995).
Equity and Choice
There continue to be questions about whether charter schools aredesigned to substantially increase choice options for at-risk studentsor, as critics charge, are designed to improve opportunities forstudents who are already academically and economically advantaged. Although charter schools have often been touted as a choice strategy toimprove educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, the vastmajority of existing schools do not target low-achieving studentpopulations. This is true in Colorado, where only a few of the state'ssixteen charter schools are designed to attract at-risk students, and inCalifornia, where charter schools are often clustered in wealthiercommunities serving more advantaged student populations.
A number of different issues, if left unchecked, could impact thequality and equity of charter school choices for all students, butparticularly for those at risk. These include admissions policies, theinvestment of parents, curricular innovation and diversity, and thelocation of charter schools.
While there is little evidence of discriminationagainst particular student groups, charter schools in a few states doretain the right to limit admission based on student ability. Inseveral states, charter laws do not specify admissions criteria. Inothers, laws are vague. For example, in Massachusetts, charters canlimit student admission in order to maintain "reasonable" academicstandards. If increasing numbers of charter schools exercise theirright to reject students on the basis of their academic performance, thechoice options of academically at-risk students could be furtherlimited.
Moreover, some fear that if charter schools seek to attract moretalented students, the broader public system could be drained ofimportant intellectual resources. So far, relatively few charterschools exist and some have targeted narrow student populations withspecial needs or interests. But as charter school options expand andincreasingly target a broader, more "mainstream" student population,there is at least the potential for a two-tiered educational system,much like those found in districts with magnet schools and other choiceoptions for successful students. If charter schools begin to cater tothe academic elite, there is a real fear that other public schools couldbecome a "dumping ground" for the least successful students andteachers.
Charter schools, whether newly-formed or convertedfrom existing schools, require an enormous investment of time, energy,and often money from parents and teachers. There is some concern thatcharter schools could be established by advantaged parent groups, oftenat the expense of more disadvantaged parents who have neither the timenor financial resources required to start or maintain a charter school. Findings from a preliminary study of California charter schools suggestthat charter school proposals are more often initiated, written, andimplemented in wealthier communities where the resources and expertiseof parents and community members are readily available (Grutzik, Bernal,Hirshberg, & Wells, 1995).
There is also concern that charter schools may carry hidden costs forstudents and their families. By circumventing most state and districtregulations, charter schools are able to eliminate costs subsidized bymore traditional public schools. For example, charter schools couldchoose to eliminate transportation or school lunches, costs difficult toavoid in an ordinary public school setting. These costs couldpotentially be passed on to students and their families, some of whomwould be unable to incur such expenses and would have to return to moretraditional schools (Huston et al., 1995).
Curricular innovation and diversity
Concerns have also focused on whether charter schools are offering students a more innovative and diverse set of curricular options. Colorado, for example, has not witnessed a proliferation of diverse and innovative charter schoolcurricula. In fact, there has been some emphasis on more traditionallearning approaches (e.g., E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum) andmore standard strategies for creating effective schools (Huston et al.,1995).
Although it varies by state, charter schoolopportunities may be limited or enhanced depending on where a studentresides. The Colorado Charter Schools Act limits the number of charterschools to 50 during the first five years of implementation and furtherrestricts the number of charter schools in each district to eight. There were no provisions, however, for the distribution of schoolsthroughout the state. The result has been a clustering of the largemajority of the state's charter schools in a single region. Students inmore rural and western regions of the state have few if any charterschool options (Huston et al., 1995).
By contrast, a recent study of 34 California charter schools found thatthe schools were equally divided among metropolitan and rurallocalities. Not surprisingly, the schools serving the largest numbersof academically, economically, and linguistically disadvantaged studentswere in metropolitan areas. Charter schools located in these areas,however, also serve the widest range of students, including highproportions of advantaged students as well. In contrast, charterschools in small and rural towns served less diverse student populations(Dianda & Corwin, 1994).
The primary concern in California is the over-representation of charterschools in localities serving relatively small segments of the studentpopulation. While the vast majority of California students, includinglarge numbers of disadvantaged students, are concentrated inmetropolitan areas, charter schools are not. As a result, students inrural and small towns, at least proportionately, have the greatestnumber of charter school options. Moreover, charter schools that arelocated in metropolitan areas typically face the greatest number ofobstacles, including resistance from their host districts, local boards,and teachers' unions (Dianda & Corwin, 1994). If these difficultiespersist, students in the state's metropolitan areas may have even fewerschool options.
Next Page: Teacher Roles and Responsibilities