Charter Schools

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A form of public school in which people starting the school negotiate a charter, a sort of contract, with a public school system or other actor (often through the school board). The school theoretically must abide by the terms of its charter in order to remain open. In return, the charter school is often freed from some state and/or local rules. If the school fails to meet the terms of its charter, the charter can be revoked and the school can be closed. (Charter schools are distinct from vouchers in that charter schools are public schools, whereas vouchers are a means to utilize public school funds to pay for private schooling.)

Different states have different rules regarding charter schools and which state regulations the charter school may ignore. Because each state's set of rules is different, it is difficult to generalize about the nature of charter schools as a whole. While many charter schools are designed to serve disadvantaged and at-risk urban youth, some are founded to pursue an educational vision and gain autonomy. The most recent data from the feds show that while charter schools are more racially diverse, they tend to enroll slightly fewer students with special needs and limited-English-proficient students than the average schools in their communities.

Of particular concern to progressive advocates of public education are states' charter school rules regarding

  • the conversion of private schools into public charter schools, which essentially allow private schools to drain resources from public school coffers; and,
  • alternative rules for teacher hiring, which can allow charter schools to be used to circumvent states' teacher licensing rules and teachers' collective bargaining rights.

It is a mistake, however, to see charter schools as solely the territory of the political right. Recently educators with more progressive politics have launched grassroots efforts to start charter schools and see charters as a powerful tool for reviving public participation in education. Those advocates see charters as a way to expand opportunities for progressive methods in the classroom and to generate new energy for community-based, community-controlled school initiatives.

Contents

History

The first charter school in the United States, City Academy, opened its doors in 1992 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since then, several states have passed various forms of charter school legislation. As of January 2004, 2,996 schools were operating in the United States. The concept of charter schools has been advocated by a diverse group of people, including Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1988. Shanker saw charter schools as a way to empower educators and introduce laboratories of innovation into the current system. Others saw charter schools as vehicles to create specialized education programs that reach under-served communities. Still others saw the charter process as a vehicle for a re-democratization of overly bureaucratic schools. Finally, some for profit companies, notably Edison Schools, saw charters as a vehicle to create privatized for profit education.

In many instances, the rise of charter schools as a parallel system rather than as an integral part of the existing school system has caused some educators worry that charter schools might be used as a tool to weaken collective bargaining rights of teachers. Charter school teachers are generally lower paid, have higher turnover rates and inferior benefits.

Evidence on the growth and outcomes of charter schools is beginning to roll in. The results are mixed and there is great variation between states and within them. In North Carolina, for example, the consistently high-performers year after year have been charter schools; on the flip side, the poorest performers have also been charter schools.

An analysis, released in July 2005, looks at twenty-six studies that make some attempt to look at change over time in charter school student or school performance. Twelve of these find that overall gains in charter schools were larger than other public schools; four find charter schools’ gains higher in certain significant categories of schools, such as elementary schools, high schools, or schools serving at risk students; six find comparable gains in charter and traditional public schools; and, four find that charter schools’ overall gains lagged behind. The study also looks at whether individual charter schools improve their performance with age (e.g. after overcoming start-up challenges). Of these, five of seven studies find that as charter schools mature, they improve. The other two find no significant differences between older and younger charter schools.

Research

Legislation

Forty states and D.C. have charter school legislation. The first charter school legislation was enacted by the Minnesota Legislature, who established outcome-based/charter schools as a part of the 1991 Omnibus K-12 Education Finance Bill (here is the current version of the MN law).

Advocacy Groups

See Also

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