Published Online: April 16, 1997

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Researchers Recount the Pluses of Charter Schools

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Washington

Charter schools are not the answer to all education woes, but investment in them is already showing some promising returns, researchers told members of a House education subcommittee last week.

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The charter school movement continues to grow quickly, as more states pass laws to experiment with the independent but publicly financed schools, Department of Education officials and researchers said at a hearing.

And so far, most charters appear to be accomplishing their mission, the witnesses said. Students are receiving a more individualized education in smaller classrooms, teachers and administrators are freed from central-office bureaucracy and paperwork, and parents feel they are welcome at the schools.

"Overall, they are not the best thing since sliced bread," said Louann Bierlein, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Indianapolis. "But they're not the evil that some people have made them out to be."

Problems are beginning to emerge, though, as states rush to sign on. At the hearing, Democrats on the subcommittee said some schools may be shutting their doors to some children, particularly those who have disabilities or limited English proficiency.

Education Department officials said they had not received any formal complaints, but suspect that states that allow the number of charters to increase rapidly may not be keeping up with their monitoring efforts. Also, charter schools may not have access to federal aid from sources such as the Title I remedial program and the Eisenhower Professional Development grants, which support teacher training in core academic areas, officials told the panel.

The department plans to release results of phone interviews with representatives of more than 400 charter schools later this month, said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. The department also will soon release guidelines on special education in charter schools.

GOP Likes Clinton Plan

One charter proponent is President Clinton, who has asked to congressional appropriators to double federal funding for the schools, from $51 million to $100 million, in his fiscal 1998 budget. His proposal was met with enthusiasm from House Republicans.

"Charter schools are one area where we can work together with the administration and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle," said Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who chairs the Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee, which held the hearing.

The Education Department now provides about $35,000 in start-up funds for each school, but would like to give up to $100,000, Mr. Tirozzi said. Department officials predict that in 10 years, some 3,000 charter schools will be open in 40 states, compared with about 480 charter schools now operating in 25 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The growth worries some Democrats. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., voiced concern that charter schools may take only top students and that those left behind will suffer.

But Ms. Bierlein, an education policy advisor to Republican Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana, said charter students often have to make sacrifices. In choosing a smaller school environment, students may lose out on a choice of a wide range of classes and extracurricular activities such as football and band, she added.

Other panelists said the choice afforded by charters could lead to more segregation in schools. Mr. Tirozzi disputed those claims, and said that the Education Department's soon-to-be released study found that charter schools were racially balanced, sometimes more so than other neighborhood schools. The department plans to study the issue further, he added.

The appeal of charter schools, some subcommittee members said, is their accountability. Charters can be shut down if they do not meet state requirements. ("Off to Market," April 9, 1997).

In the six years since Minnesota became the first state to open a charter school, "only a handful have closed," Mr. Riggs said.

But accountability has a downside: Children get displaced when a charter school closes, Mr. Tirozzi said.

Federal Role

Some panel members also questioned whether federal charter funding would end up tainting the autonomy and undermining the mission of the movement.

Mr. Tirozzi said federal funds provide needed seed money to schools. The department's study will show that most charter officials don't think federal regulations interfere with running their schools, he said.

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