Published Online: February 19, 1997

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The Charter School Movement Is Growing Because It's Working

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Having failed to block the charter idea, opponents are trying to stifle it by retaining district and union control over schools.

The charter school movement is helping solve some of the nation's toughest education problems. Despite powerful, intense opposition, President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley support the charter movement because it is creating more effective, accountable public schools and stimulating the larger system to improve. Charter advocates have learned several lessons from previous school reform successes and shortcomings.

1. Public schools can make a strong positive impact on students, including youngsters from troubled backgrounds. Prominent reformers like Robert Slavin, James P. Comer, Deborah Meier, and Henry Levin, among others, have demonstrated how public schools can have a major, measurable, positive impact on all kinds of students. Unfortunately, districts often ignore their success.

Poverty, racism, and violence must be reduced. But like Bob Slavin, charter advocates know that problems outside schools should not excuse failures inside schools. Schools can do a better job.

Charter schools around the nation are improving student achievement. California, Colorado, and Minnesota charter schools have had contracts renewed because of their success.

2. One of public education's central problems is the system itself. After studying about 1,000 classrooms, John I. Goodlad concluded: "The cards are stacked against innovation." American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker described the plight of educators trying to create new, more effective public school options. Such educators, he said, often are "treated like traitors or outlaws for daring to move out of the lock-step and do something different...often they could look forward to insecurity, obscurity, or outright hostility."

Henry Levin "loves the charter movement," partly because he's seen so much district interference with schools. "Many districts regularly move principals. Or they hire new superintendents, or elect new school board members," he says. "Schools making progress often encounter higher-level decisions disrupting, even terminating, their programs."

3. Public education can be offered without relying exclusively on school districts. Several legislatures have created public schools which report directly to the state. These schools serve, for example, students with disabilities or special interests in art, mathematics, or science. Schools can be public without being district-controlled.

Effective charter laws build on this tradition, but to serve all kinds of students, prohibit admissions tests. Strong laws stimulate district improvement by authorizing local boards and the state to sponsor charters, and allow charter schools to completely control budget and personnel. The Massachusetts charter law, allowing applications directly to the state, helped convince Boston to create a new "pilot school" program. Colorado's law persuaded the Jefferson County, Colo., board to respond to parents who pleaded for replication of successful programs. The Rochester, Minn., board created a Montessori public school after a private Montessori program requested a charter. Strong charter laws stimulate system change as they create new, more accountable public schools.

However, a 1996 Humphrey Institute survey of 77 legislators, aides, and policy leaders in nine states with charter laws found that most statewide teachers' unions vigorously opposed strong laws. Unions generally favor permitting only local boards to approve schools and/or allowing local boards and unions to rule on contract changes. States following these recommendations either have no charters or very few. And weak laws provide no stimulus for local districts and unions. Having failed to block the charter idea, opponents are trying to stifle it by retaining district and union control over schools.

4. School choice plans vary in their impact. The nation's largest (informal) school choice plan is the most inequitable: the school district system allowing affluent families to move to exclusive suburbs, where they deduct high property taxes from taxable income. The real policy debate is whether low- and moderate-income families will have choices, too, and if so, what kind.

Ironically, some opponents call charters "elitist," while ignoring explicitly elite magnet schools.

Badly designed school choice plans promote inequity. Several Southern states used school choice to maintain segregation. And because more than half of U.S. secondary magnet schools, and about a quarter of elementary magnets, use admissions tests, low-income and low-achieving students often are underrepresented. Many magnet schools receive more funding than nearby neighborhood schools.

Good charter laws prohibit admissions tests. Ironically, some opponents call charters "elitist," while ignoring explicitly elite (and often higher-spending) magnet schools.

Like charters, many distinguished public alternative schools serve all kinds of students. They anticipated, sometimes by 25 years, research supporting small, more individualized schools. Charters build on excellent nonselective public alternatives, like Walden III in Racine, Wis.; SAIL in Tallahassee, Fla.; and St. Paul, Minn.'s Open School.

Some union leaders are responding.

But charter proponents--some of them, like me, public-alternative-school veterans--also recall frustrations. Districts regularly assigned teachers to alternative schools via seniority, rather than agreement with the school's philosophy. It can take months, even years, for supplies to arrive or repairs to be made. Many alternative schools pleaded in vain for control over budget and personnel.

Gaining this control helps charter schools produce higher student achievement, as they are doing around the nation. And a number of charters are doing this with challenging young people.

5. The public wants better schools. The charter concept is spreading because it combines opportunity, choice, and responsibility for higher achievement. Local advocacy groups like the Urban League, the Urban Coalition, the Tejano Center, and ACORN helped start charters. They know better education is possible, now.

Some charter opponents cite a few troubled charters. Most were closed in a few months, rather than taking years to reorganize, which was necessary with deeply troubled districts like Newark, N.J.; Compton, Calif.; and Washington.

Some union leaders are responding. Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon helped Houston's Tejano Center create a charter sponsored by the state of Texas. She believes that it will "help participating students, and encourage districtwide improvements."

In 1988, Albert Shanker popularized the term "charter." But little happened until 1991, when Minnesota passed the first charter law, adding accountability, permitting multiple sponsors, and freeing charters from local contracts and most state rules. Mr. Shanker wasn't pleased. In 1993, he included charter schools in a list of "quick fixes that won't fix anything."

In 1991, the Minnesota Education Association called charters "a cruel hoax." Two years later, its statewide newspaper featured an MEA member and charter advocate, Milo Cutter, on page-one. Mr. Cutter co-founded and teaches at City Academy, a St. Paul charter school whose students all are former dropouts. Last year, City Academy's contract was renewed because of its success.

In 1992, the National Education Association opposed federal charter-startup funds. But as support grew for charters, the NEA endorsed weak state laws embracing them. The NEA also allocated $1.5 million and asked several charter veterans, including Milo Cutter, to help other teachers start charters. That's progress.

The charter movement is producing more-involved families, more-fulfilled educators, and more-successful students. American education needs this combination of hope, stimulation, accountability, and opportunity.


Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis. This essay is adapted from his book, Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity in American Education (Jossey-Bass, 1996).

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Order the special report, "Breaking Away." Contains all of the articles and charts from Education Week's special report examining the charter school movement and whether it has the staying power to change the face of American schooling. Published November 29, 1995. Available on disk. Cost is $6.
  • Charter School Research. A public "space" dedicated to charter schools. Its goal is to provide a comprehensive catalog of charter school-related materials on the Internet and "to cross as many boundaries as possible while enabling inquiry, communication, critique, and justifiable experimentation." Hosted by AskERIC.
  • A Class of Their Own. Claudia Wallis, Time Magazine, October 31, 1994. Bucking bureaucracy, brashly independent public schools have much to teach about saving education.
  • Charter Schools: A New Breed of Public Schools. From the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, a 1993 policy brief on charter schools.
  • Charter School Laws: Do They Measure Up? This 1996 report from the AFT endorses charter schools, provided they demonstrate improved student achievement.
  • Riley Announces $17 Million in Support for Charter Schools. This press release from the U.S. Department of Education explains this initiative supporting charter schools.

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