Declarations of Independence

The nation's 234 charter schools go their own way in striving to re-invigorate education.

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In a squat city building on a gray autumn day, workers are putting on the finishing touches.

Breaking Away:
The Charter School Revolution
Declarations of Independence
Laws of the Land
American Visionaries

New walls, paint, floors, and furniture have replaced the drab fixtures from the days when the University of Massachusetts held night classes here. And though the renovations aren't complete, hundreds of children have begun their school day in the classrooms the workers have created inside.

In a meeting room on the first floor of the Boston Renaissance Charter School, about 100 people have gathered to celebrate the transformation. For many of them, the rebirth of this structure as one of Massachusetts' first charter schools serves as a perfect symbol of what such schools can do for public education in America: Take a tired, worn-out old structure and pump it full of new life.

The basic charter concept is simple: Allow a group of teachers or other would-be educators to apply for permission to open a school. Give them dollar for dollar what a public school gets for each student but without any strings attached. Free them from the regulations that cripple learning and stifle innovation at so many public schools.

In the four years since the first charter schools opened their doors in Minnesota, 18 other states have passed charter laws in various forms, and 234 of the schools are now up and running around the country.

In many cases, the new independent public schools have invigorated public education and filled parents and teachers with new enthusiasm. Dozens of individual theories about better teaching or improved school organization are getting a test run.

Charter schools have generated "an impressive level of interest and energy among parents and teachers and, in a strikingly bipartisan way, among elected officials," says Ted Kolderie, an education analyst with the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn.

But the movement has never been simply about the schools. If it results in only a few hundred "boutique" schools with innovative ideas, even the movement's strongest backers will call it a failure.

The goal has been to provoke changes in the entire U.S. education system. In this larger context, it remains far less certain that the charter school movement has staying power.

Despite the fanfare that accompanied the early charter laws, it is unclear whether they are strong enough to allow the movement to flourish. And several laws passed recently in other states limit both the number of charter schools and the freedom from regulation that is at the heart of the concept.

Experts on both sides agree that the movement has reached a critical juncture. And many of its leaders say that success or failure now rests with the schools themselves: that it's up to them to produce.

A lot of people here are betting that Boston Renaissance will produce from the scores of parents who have put their children on waiting lists to get in all the way up to Gov. William F. Weld, who has made charter schools a focus of his education program.

To come up with the $400,000 to turn this building into a school took an unusual alliance of public and private agencies: the local foundation that received the charter; a state lending agency; and the Edison Project, the private, for-profit concern that this fall has also taken over the management of three traditional public schools in other states.

Boston Renaissance is unlike any other charter school to date. With more than 600 students in grades kindergarten through 5, it is among the nation's largest. Like other Edison Project schools, it features a longer school day and year and a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes classical academics as well as state-of-the-art computer technology.

In a city where race and education have long been a volatile mix, Renaissance has attracted a diverse student body that reflects the school-age population of Boston: 52 percent black, 25 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent of Asian descent.

"This is what all schools should be like," Gov. Weld tells the educators, parents, and civic leaders gathered here for the dedication ceremony.

"Years of hot air and, frankly, lukewarm efforts at reform have not done enough to shake up the system," the governor says. "For the same amount of money that leaves some of our children on the economic sidelines, I really believe that Renaissance is going to give children a world-class education."

One virtue of charter schools is that no two are alike. Each is tailored to the specific needs of the students, teachers, and the community it serves.

Like the one in Marblehead, Mass. Less than an hour's drive from downtown Boston, the postcard-perfect seaside community won its independence from nearby Salem in 1648. Its 20,000 residents retain that spirit of individuality today, a spirit that is visible throughout the small charter school they have created in the old Elks lodge on the edge of town.

Indeed, the Marblehead Community Charter Public School seems like a scale model of Yankee independence. Its interdisciplinary curriculum is built around individual learning plans, and New England-style town meetings give each of the school's 137 students a say in how it should be run. When a visitor arrives, students come forward with characteristic gumption to introduce themselves.

The Marblehead school also embodies one of the key principles that parents and students around the country say draws them to charter schools: Small is good.

"Because of smaller classes, kids aren't going to get away with goofing off as easily," says Christina Goodwin, a polite 13-year-old 7th grader who pauses for a moment between classes to answer a visitor's questions.

Behind her, a group of students mops the hallway floor. All the students at the school help out with simple choressweeping up, filling the paper-towel holders, taking out the trash.

Debra Hammel, the mother of a 6th grader and a volunteer in the school's front office, says the school's size and approach were a better fit for her son's learning style.

"I love the ownership that the kids take in the school," she says. "It's a real democratic process."

But the notion of a separate, special school didn't fit everyone's notion of where Marblehead ought to be going with its schools. Some residents don't like to see money that would go to the town's traditional public school system diverted to the charter school.

"It's been said that Marblehead doesn't like change," says Hammel. "It's competition. Where there is competition, there is defensiveness."

Of course, competition is a fundamental element of the charter concept, as with other school choice schemes. It is also one of the chief objections to them.

Many critics argue that charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere shift scarce public dollars away from the traditional public schools to untested and potentially detrimental experiments.

"These schools have been in operation for less than three months. Yet, when you talk to some members of the Weld administration, you'd think charters have already cured all the ills of the educational system," says Robert J. Murphy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "We still feel innovation can occur within the system," he adds.

In Massachusetts, the legislature sought to cushion the loss of state aid to communities with charter schools by creating a special reimbursement plan. But some districts, like Marblehead, still face a shortfall, and the compensation is designed to last only a few years.

Some parents who helped organize the Marblehead charter school told The Boston Globe that their children were bullied last spring at their regular public schools because of the push for the charter school.

"People are afraid of change," says Karen Corcoran, a leader of the organizers, who has since moved to another community because of the hostility.

Carl Goodman, a lawyer and former town selectman, is leading a legal challenge to the Marblehead charter school and to the state's charter law. He argues that several of its provisions violate the state constitution's ban on public funding of schools that are not "publicly owned and under the exclusive control" of government agents.

Similar legal attacks have been mounted against charter laws in other states. In Michigan, for example, the state teachers' union led a partially successful challenge to the law and forced the state legislature to rewrite it.

In Colorado, the Denver school board has resisted orders from the state board of education to approve a charter for a school planned by a veteran public school teacher. The dispute is being hashed out in the courts.

In response to Goodman's arguments, the state of Massachusetts argues that charter schools are public and that their leadership boards are public agents.

But Goodman believes that charters not only run afoul of the state constitution but are bad public policy as well. State bureaucrats, he says, are making key decisions about how state education dollars will be spent in local communities.

"Why should the few people who get the ear of a political appointee get a portion of the budget that is otherwise controlled by the elected [town] school committee?" he wonders. "If we are to spend several hundred thousand dollars in our town, perhaps the taxpayers would like a say about it."

The seeds of the charter school movement were sown in California, says Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. In the mid-1980s, California educators began debating the idea of freeing teachers to create their own public schools.

In 1991, Minnesota passed the nation's first charter school law. It authorized no more than eight schools statewide and required each to receive the blessing of its local school board.

Nathan, a leading backer of charter schools nationwide, says Minnesota's original law was a badly flawed political compromise that failed to embody the true promise of charters. The legislature has tinkered with it since 1991, and though Nathan says it is better, he believes it is still imperfect.

While the Minnesota law now authorizes as many as 40 charters, only 17 were open this fall. (By contrast, Arizona has 47 schools in operation just a year after its charter law was passed.)

Observers in Minnesota say the relatively low number stems from the requirement that school districts approve charters and the fact that the state offers a variety of other school-choice programs, including open enrollment between districts and a college-enrollment option for some high school students.

Most of Minnesota's charter schools are specialized programs that serve at-risk students or other distinctive groups.

For example, the Metro Deaf School opened in St. Paul in 1993 to emphasize American Sign Language teaching, which a group of parents believed was a method that school districts refused to embrace.

Another charter, the Cedar-Riverside Community School in Minneapolis, opened in 1993 and now operates in a cold-looking high-rise apartment complex where federal Section 8 housing subsidies help pay the rent for most tenants.

In a ground-floor classroom, Austin McGregor is working on a project: a report about the ill health effects of spray paint on young graffiti artists. The lanky 10th grader says that's a big difference from a couple of years ago, when he wasn't working on much of anything at school.

"My grades went from Ds and Fs to a 3.8 average last year," he says. Like many people in this racially diverse, low-income neighborhood, McGregor feels a sense of ownership and involvement in the Cedar-Riverside school--a feeling he never had before.

Residents had complained for years that they had no public school nearby and that the district shuffled their children around the city to help other schools meet desegregation mandates.

The K-10 school has just 72 students, for which it receives about $3,000 per pupil from the state. It emphasizes interdisciplinary teaching and project-based learning such as McGregor's report on spray paint.

His teacher, Christie Manisto, says some of her students had become involved in "tagging"--slang for spraying graffiti--so she suggested a project they might find interesting.

Across a courtyard and up several floors to a part of the housing complex called the Lighthouse, teacher Trudie Jones has a remarkable view of the Minneapolis skyline from her classroom. She would gladly trade that, however, for some new computers.

The school spends a hefty portion of its budget on rent, and new technology has rendered its computers obsolete, says Jones, who teaches 5th and 6th grades.

Like many charter school educators, Jones believes charters should receive extra funding for their start-up years. Enough money above and beyond the basic per-pupil amounts to put them on a strong financial footing.

"If charter schools are going to stay alive," says Jones, "continuing to do everything on a bare-bones budget is not going to work."

Kathryn Hartman, another teacher, admits that the school could use a few more students to shore up its budget.

"The amount of money we receive from the state is not adequate," she adds, noting that while charter schools receive state per-pupil expenditures, they don't benefit from the extra revenue districts take in from local taxes.

As the longest-running charter schools, the ones in Minnesota are also among the most closely watched.

What many observers are looking for are signs that the presence of a charter school, or even the threat of one, is motivating school districts to improve or to implement programs they once resisted.

Charter advocates call them "second order" effects and believe they are one area where the concept has its greatest potential to spur widespread change.

Too often, says Ted Kolderie, analysts of educational change look only at the "first order" effects: the success or failure of the individual schools and the students enrolled in them.

But, he says, "the real purpose of the charter law is to cause the mainline system to change and improve. It would be strange not to evaluate the law in terms of its real purpose."

Already, Kolderie and Joe Nathan can point to several notable examples of charter schools contributing to broader change.

An often-cited example is the St. Paul suburb of Forest Lake, where the district agreed to start a Montessori program in 1993, after a group of parents clamored for a charter school based on the educational method. The Rochester, Minn. district started a similar Montessori program after a private Montessori group asked the school board for a charter.

In Boston, the district and the Boston Teachers Union created a "pilot schools" program in 1994, months after the state enacted its charter law. Teachers can propose new programs as new schools or as schools within existing public schools--a concept similar to charter schools that many believe the union embraced only because of the new law.

And, in Minnesota, charter advocates say they have been able to measure the effect of the law in human terms.

"Many parents and kids have said their lives have been transformed by this," says Nathan.

Ember Reichgott Junge, a Minnesota state senator who sponsored the original charter school law, believes that changes in it will open the door to more charter schools.

Under one of the new provisions, applicants who have been denied by their local board--but who received at least two "yes" votes--can now appeal to the state board of education for a charter.

"I'm so pleased that other states are improving on the concept," adds Junge.

Proponents say Massachusetts has one of the nation's strongest charter laws, largely because it removes local districts from any role in approving or rejecting charter applications. Instead, the state secretary of education, an appointee of the governor, makes those decisions.

Now that laws are on the books and scores of schools are up and running, the process of measuring how well they're doing begins.

Asked how the success of charter schools will be measured, both individually and in general, Junge says,"The best way to measure the charter law is by the way it has captured the enthusiasm and excitement of parents and educators. This is a true grassroots idea."

But she quickly adds that lawmakers and others will expect a more definitive way to measure them.

So far, evaluation of charter schools has consisted of anecdotal reports and many state-by-state calls to tinker with charter laws to make them better.

The first nationwide survey of charter schools, released last summer by the Education Commission of the States, found a surprising number geared toward children from troubled backgrounds. That contradicts the claims of many critics who once argued that the independent public schools would be tailored to well-off suburban children.

But how is the success or failure of the concept ultimately to be measured?

Several efforts are under way. The U.S. Department of Education has signed a $2.1 million contract with a consortium of research organizations to conduct a four-year study of charter schools.

The Hudson Institute's Educational Excellence Network has received a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine how charter school laws in seven states have been implemented.

A key principle of charter schools is that if they fail to perform, their government sponsors can pull the plug. In fact, charter advocates say the failure last year of a school in Los Angeles--Edutrain--due to financial mismanagement is a sign that the idea is working.

Bob DeBoer, the director of a Minneapolis charter, the New Visions School, says many charter organizers are initially overwhelmed by the complexity of running what is essentially a small business.

"When you start a charter school, there's no blueprint," says DeBoer, whose K-8 school serves children with reading disabilities and attention-deficit disorder. "It's an immense undertaking."

The New Visions School features several innovative teaching methods. In the "brain gym," for example, hyperactive pupils tumble around on mats. The school also uses biofeedback techniques, where students learn to harness their brain power for greater concentration on schoolwork.

The 140-pupil charter school is on more solid financial footing than some others because it is sponsored by a nonprofit organization, A Chance to Grow, that has been around for several years. But that doesn't mean DeBoer can sit back and relax.

"In the end," he says, "charter schools are more accountable than traditional public schools. I have yet to see a traditional public school closed in Minnesota because it isn't performing."

Vol. 15, Issue 13

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