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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Report: Calif. Charters Fall Short on Promises

Report: Calif. Charters Fall Short on Promises

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Charter schools in California have not yet lived up to many of their promises, a team of university researchers concludes in a new study.

The report, released late last week and quickly criticized by charter proponents as being skewed, a lso calls for more research and debate on issues of equity and access in charter schools.

Drawn from case studies of 17 such schools in 10 California districts, the 64-page report from the University of California, Los Angeles, also is based on hundreds of interviews with educators, charter school founders, and parents, among others.

The schools were selected to represent a cross section of California's charter schools, said Amy Stuart Wells, the UCLA education professor who led the study team. For example, eight were existing public schools that converted to charter status; nine were new.

California has more than 150 charter schools. The idea behind such publicly funded schools is that they will receive increased autonomy in exchange for greater accountability for student results. In California, unlike many of the other active charter school states, charters primarily are granted through local school boards.

For More Information:
Free copies of the report "Beyond the Rhetoric of Charter School Reform: A Study of Ten California School Districts" are available by calling (310) 825-9903. The report is also available on the Web, in PDF format, at www.gseis.ucla.edu/docs/charter.pdf Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.

The UCLA report examines what it describes as national charter advocates' claims that charter schools provide greater accountability and school choice, more autonomy, higher efficiency, and competition that will spur change in the larger public school system.

Limited Scrutiny

Among the broad findings are that charter schools:

  • In most cases, are not yet held accountable for enhanced student achievement and are more likely to be held fiscally accountable than educationally accountable, in part because districts are ambivalent about monitoring charters;
  • Vary widely in the amount of operating autonomy they need or want from districts and in the demands they make on districts;
  • Often must rely on private resources to supplement basic school aid, with their success in drawing corporate, foundation, or community aid frequently determined by the wealth of their communities and their leaders' connections; and
  • Have more control than most other public schools over which students are recruited and who can attend.

That control, which the report questions, stems from charters' ability to do their own recruitment and information dissemination, as well as to set out requirements for parent involvement and student performance or behavior.

Attendance is also limited, it says, because the state does not pay for transportation to charter schools.

Ms. Wells said California is not enforcing its requirement that charters achieve a racial and ethnic balance that is "reflective" of the district's general population. In 10 of the 17 schools studied, at least one racial or ethnic group was over- or under-represented by 15 percent or more when compared with the districts' racial composition. State law does not specify what "reflective" means.

Like many states, California does not provide facilities aid to charter schools, either. The need to tap into private sources for start-up costs or day-to-day expenses suggests that charter schools are "at the forefront of efforts to privatize public education," the report argues.

Questions of Objectivity

The UCLA report drew immediate fire from charter supporters, who said many of its conclusions contradict prior California and national charter studies. And they noted that many of the issues raised, such as racial balance and accountability, are not unique to charter schools.

"This combines a couple of thoughtful suggestions with inflated rhetoric based on a tiny sample for the kinds of questionable conclusions being drawn," said Joe Nathan, a prominent charter school advocate and researcher based in Minnesota.

Some of Ms. Wells' past work has also been criticized by charter supporters who question her objectivity. ("Union's Charter School Project Emphasizes Research and Evaluation," March 11, 1998.)

"I'm not a proponent or opponent" of charter schools, Ms. Wells said last week. "I'm just trying to raise the hard questions and move beyond some of the rhetoric."

The report also drew reaction from the U.S. Department of Education, which is in the midst of a four-year national evaluation of charter schools and oversees federal aid to charter schools. President Clinton has called for the establishment of 3,000 charter schools by 2000.

"It is much too early for any study to reach this conclusion," said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who noted that more than half of the nation's 1,000 plus charter schools are less than 2 years old.

"We're not going to draw national conclusions from this. We're committed to staying the course," Mr. Tirozzi said last week.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 8

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