Published Online: April 30, 1997


The False Friends of Charter Schools

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When a reform that rocks boats becomes a fad that everyone appears to endorse, one must ask whether it has retained its essence.

President Clinton has become a cheerleader for charter schools. Hurrah for that. Most of the dozens of charter schools we've visited are pretty terrific.

But when he calls for doubling federal funds for them (to $100 million next year) and visualizes 3,000 such schools by the turn of the century (up from 500 today), it's important to know what exactly he means by a charter school: Does the president insist on fully independent public schools that are free to innovate, to shape their own destinies, and to direct their own resources? Or will he, like his political supporters at the National Education Association and elsewhere in the public school "establishment," favor near-clones of conventional schools that must obey most of the usual rules even while waving the "charter" banner?

When a reform that rocks boats becomes a fad that everyone appears to endorse, one must ask whether it has retained its essence. (Is a cinnamon-raisin bagel--reportedly another Clinton passion--really a bagel, or just a sweet roll with a belly button?) Our travels to almost 50 charter schools in nine states over the past 18 months have led us to distinguish between the genuine article and faux charters that carry the name but are really just minor variations on the theme of "site based" management. If the fakes, lauded and aided by the false friends of charter schools, spread faster than the real thing, which continues to be bitterly resisted in one state and community after another, we may find that "support" for charter schools could prove lethal to this promising reform strategy. If the White House allows its prestige (and additional federal dollars) to buttress the fakes, Mr. Clinton's seeming enthusiasm for charter schools could actually hasten their death.

As schools with the "charter" label multiply, as more states pass enabling legislation, and as other jurisdictions weigh amendments to existing charter laws, it's worth recalling what this idea is all about.

The basic concept is simple and, we think, powerful: Sound school choices can be provided to families under the umbrella of public education without micromanagement by government bureaucracies. Independent schools that are open to all, paid for with tax dollars, accountable to public authorities for pupil achievement, and subject to basic health, safety, and nondiscrimination requirements are public schools even if they're managed by a committee of parents, a team of teachers, the local Boys & Girls Club, or perhaps a profit-seeking firm. They need not be regulated into conformity by platoons of assistant superintendents, staffed only by government employees, or bent to the thousand clauses of union contracts.

By now it's clear that not all charter programs are created equal. Many states have enacted weak, Potemkin-style statutes that display the facade but not the reality of charter legislation, binding charter schools to most of the crippling constraints faced by conventional public schools. For example: Their teachers are deemed to be employees of the local school district, and they must adhere to its collective bargaining contracts. They may hire only certified teachers (not, for example, a NASA scientist or Bill Gates). And they have some say over curriculum but little or no control of their money.

Uncle Sam is at fault, too. Modest federal checks to help meet start-up costs are surely welcome. But the big programs (such as Title I, special education, and school lunch) make no allowance for the unconventional contours of charter schools--nor has Mr. Clinton said they should. Funding formulae are still tied to school system demographics; the dollars seldom follow eligible youngsters to different schools; and the regulatory burden of participation is heavy for a fledgling school with no bureaucratic superstructure. Nor do even the strongest charter laws provide for the capital-funding needs of charter schools.

Many such constraints are there on purpose, imposed by enemies of charter schools who, unable to strangle this infant reform in its crib, have done their utmost to keep it from growing big and strong. Others, however, are more like bureaucratic accidents. In North Carolina, for example, despite a generally strong law, the attorney general has issued a preliminary ruling stating that charter teachers cannot take advantage of the state retirement system unless their schools surrender their independence and function as part of their local districts. This is a Faustian bargain.

Charter foes have devised two strategies: blasting these schools off the landscape and tugging them back into the coils of the bureaucracy.

In Illinois, a number of promising charter proposals have lately been derailed by hostile districts. (One very solid school plan was shunned by 11 separate districts.) In Olympia, Wash., as charter bills traverse the legislative hurdles, committees have diluted them at every turn, forbidding multiple sponsors and sabotaging the appeals process--and thereby revealing as false the promises of business leaders and others who swore last fall that, if only the "referendum" version of charter schools was defeated (which happened), the legislature could be counted upon to pass a strong charter law. In New York, the powerful teachers' union has made it plain that it has a similar fate in mind for Gov. George E. Pataki's bold charter plan.

In California, where the charter program is already in its third year, few schools have been able to negotiate financial autonomy. As a board member in one such school remarked to us: "I'm damn mad at this creeping takeover of our budget by the district. It all comes down to a matter of control."

Such political hassles, bureaucratic subservience, and micromanagement are exactly what charter schools are meant to escape. The whole point is to offer freedom from red tape in return for a commitment to produce specific results. To deliver on that commitment, the school must be free to decide who will teach what and how, where to locate and what hours to operate, whether to require uniforms, what homework to assign, how best to impart reading skills to 6-year-olds, and which sports (if any) to offer.

It must be able to spend its money on teachers, tutors, counselors, or computers--as its leaders see fit.

In return, the charter school is profoundly accountable--in two directions. Since nobody is forced to attend, it must answer to students and parents via the marketplace. And since the charter-issuing body is not obliged to renew its charter, to remain in existence it must also deliver the promised results, usually defined in academic standards and tracked on statewide (or other) tests. If the charter issuer wants to ensure that the school doesn't voyage into curricular outer space, it can stipulate core skills and knowledge. Otherwise, those running the school decide what to teach. (The one big exception, of course, is religion.)

Charter foes have devised two strategies: blasting these schools off the landscape and tugging them back into the coils of the bureaucracy. Never mind that charter schools today enroll barely two-tenths of 1 percent of American schoolchildren. What's agitating their enemies is the realization that the idea is beginning to catch on--and if the president has his way it will spread even faster. Hence the public school mandarinate--the teachers' unions, to be sure, but also school board and administrator groups--is striving to contain their numbers, limit their freedom, and redefine their concept. Recent examples include Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association (writing in these pages), and Michael Kelly of the The New Republic, who used the antics of Washington's Marcus Garvey Charter School to savage the whole idea.

Meanwhile, most of the charter schools that struggle into existence--through all the bureaucratic hurdles, under all the "caps," with little or no capital funding, and often with reduced operating dollars--are terrific educational institutions. They're generally small, safe schools that are clear about their mission, staffed by dedicated teachers, and supported by devoted parents, many of whom supplement the schools' resources with their own perspiration. We've encountered a few that we wouldn't send our own kids to, but far more often we've liked what we've seen.

Consider California's Fenton Avenue Charter School, a preschool-through-6th grade institution that "seceded" from the Los Angeles Unified School District in order to operate independently. Open year round, it offers an education to 1,300 students with a teaching staff of 63. Its enrollment is 75 percent Hispanic, over 97 percent minority, and nearly all poor.

Unlike most California charters, Fenton Avenue has gained control of almost its entire ($6 million) budget. This autonomy has allowed much that was impossible under district and union thumbs: reducing class size; adding after-school and Saturday programs; managing the school's own food services; providing free accident insurance for kids and long-term disability for employees; reducing administrative personnel by 25 percent; and restoring a 10 percent staff pay cut. It has created an on-site broadcasting studio (the first one ever for a California elementary school), developed its own primary phonics instruction program (in both Spanish and English), and boosted pupil test scores more than 20 percent in two years.

The great appeal of charter schools is that they invite innovation while demanding results—the precise opposite of conventional U.S. public schools.

The public school establishment hates all this: The cracking of its monopoly, the ironclad accountability for results, the evidence that more can be done with the same (or less) resources, the shift of power to consumers. Yet charter schools are sprouting like mushrooms. California now has more than 100, and Arizona has grown more than 150 since 1995. Small though these numbers are alongside the behemoth of public education, they're more alarming to the status quo than anything save vouchers. (And they're spreading much faster.)

Although new and without lengthy track records, most charter schools already have waiting lists. State charter programs are bumping against caps that legislators often impose as a compromise with the teachers' unions. In Massachusetts, for example, all 25 authorized charters have been awarded. Five approved applicants are on a waiting list of their own, and 123 groups have applied since 1994.

The great appeal of charter schools is that they invite innovation while demanding results--the precise opposite of conventional U.S. public schools. By doing so, charter schools are reprogramming America's educational DNA. Public education, as currently constituted, is a species showing signs of extinction. It's too regimented, lumbering, and inert to survive in a changing environment. Charter schools are a mutation--an adaptation to more demanding surroundings--that will help the species survive, albeit transformed. But policymakers beware of the false friends of the charter idea or it won't ultimately do any good.

Charter schools are bona fide "schools of choice," open to all who wish to attend them. Yet despite critics' predictions that they would "cream" the best pupils from conventional schools, we found just the opposite: Charter schools are mainly drawing kids who were having rotten experiences in regular schools (or had dropped out). Fifty-five percent of U.S. charter students in 1995-96 were poor, 63 percent were minority-group members, 19 percent had limited English proficiency, and almost one in five had disabilities. (Early data from the current school year indicate a similar enrollment pattern.)

One might suppose such demographics would mute the opposition. Yet they seem to infuriate the mandarins even more, perhaps because they signal both that disadvantaged kids are truly gypped by the current system and that poor families are savvy enough to do something about it as soon as the exit door is unlocked.

Most opponents simply assert that all education dollars belong by right to the "school system" (that is, not to children, parents, and taxpayers) and that charter schools thus "rob" funds from their proper custodians. Recently, a favorite stratagem employed by foes has been to haul a few bad apples from the charter barrel (Citizen 2000 in Arizona and the Garvey School in Washington are favorite examples) and hold them up for public outrage. The implication is that this innovation must be proven foolproof--and drained of all risk--before it is even seriously tried. Meanwhile, the conventional school system gets away with massive malpractice: mediocre, unsafe schools that are enveloped in all the bureaucratic controls that charter schools lack, yet where little learning happens.

Of course, charters are no cure-all. Five hundred schools aren't many in a land with 83,000 public schools--and it's so hard to start and succeed with one that their numbers may not swell, even with President Clinton's encouragement and a dribble of federal stimulus funding. Nor does the charter label immunize them to human frailties, slipshod planning, unanticipated crises, and reversals of fortune.

The fact that the missteps of a few ne'er-do-well charter schools are being trumpeted poses a harsh dilemma: Putting a tight-enough lid on the charter barrel to keep out every bad apple would destroy the freedom that's vital for the many good ones to succeed. Substituting rule compliance for results accountability would abort this valuable educational experiment.

Will charter schools survive their current assault by false friends and overt foes? That depends on whether policymakers are shrewd enough to identify--and limit--the domains where charter schools are most vulnerable to regulatory overload. Still, it's significant that the fight is no longer about whether to permit charter schools to exist but about how independently they will be able to operate.

What are we to make of President Clinton's enthusiasm? A recent Economist article pointed out that his "policy points in the right direction, but it is sadly timid," doubtless due to anxiety about offending key political supporters. If he were truly serious about charter schools, he'd take on the unions that are trying to cripple them and rein in the federal rules that are strangling them. Otherwise, true charter school advocates should be wary of his embrace.

Gregg Vanourek is a research fellow in the Hudson Institute's Washington office. Bruno V. Manno is a Hudson senior fellow and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education. Chester E. Finn Jr. is the John M. Olin fellow at Hudson and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education. With Louann Bierlein, they are conducting a two-year study of "Charter Schools in America."

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