Laws of the Land

Are charters an idea whose time has come and gone?

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In the past four years, the charter school concept has had the makings of a legislative juggernaut.

What was once a hazy educational notion has now become law in 19 states. Democrats and Republicans alike are hot for the idea, and thousands of applicants have put in their bids to open schools under the new laws.

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Even teachers' unions and school board associations--some of which spent thousands of dollars to fight charter legislation--are signing on to the concept of publicly funded schools that operate outside most state and district regulations.

"It's a very powerful idea when you look at how quickly it has spread as legislation and how quickly it has gained general acceptance," says Charles B. Zogby, the policy director for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, whose charter school legislation is now being debated. "In terms of education reform, how many ideas are there like that?"

The answer, of course, is not many.

But the history of education reform is littered with ideas that shine brightly and reap hosannas from all, only to flame out into a black hole of obscurity. Could charter schools follow a similar trajectory?

"I'd need a crystal ball to answer that," says Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a charter school advocate. "Or maybe the entrails of a goat."

Still, it doesn't take magical foresight to see the weaknesses in the charter school movement that plague it now and pose problems for the future. This year, at least half the state laws passed were watered-down versions of the original concept.

And supporters of the movement say that while the genuine article retains its inherent value, more of the cheap imitations may be on the way. Some recent converts to charter schools, they fear, may be co-opting the idea and pushing bills that embrace the concept in name only.

"There are a number of states that have laws that I would just say, 'Why did you even bother?"' says Peggy Hunter, the president of the Minneapolis-based Charter School Strategies Inc., a nonprofit resource group for charter school advocates.

Also, the charter idea may be losing some of its cachet as fresh, bold reform. Education debate this year in such states as North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan focused not on charters but on efforts to decentralize power or create publicly funded tuition vouchers that would allow public school students to attend private schools.

"There is a concern that charters are getting lost in the sexier issues of vouchers and decentralization," says Louann A. Bierlein, the director of the Louisiana Education Policy Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "You really don't have a strong constituency behind charters because it falls in the middle between the two."

As a result, charter advocates enter the second half of the 1990s facing a much different task than the one they confronted at the beginning of the decade. Having proved itself in a sprint, the concept now has to gear up for a marathon.

Catalyst for Change

The charter school idea owes its quick success in part to its close ties to other popular reforms. It is a sister to site-based management, a kissing cousin of public school choice, and an in-law of the idea that school systems improve by "scaling up."

But many lawmakers embrace the concept because it promises to shake up the education system, something they are eager to do more than a decade after the first alarms sounded about the state of education.

"We've had 12 years now, and nothing's improved," says Cooper Snyder, the chairman of the Ohio Senate education committee and the author of a pending charter bill. "We've tried to fix and fix and fix, and nothing has succeeded."

In some states, charter laws have become the catalyst for change that lawmakers envisioned. Massachusetts' 1993 law is said to have spurred Boston school officials and the local teachers' union to create "pilot schools" that operate free from many state and district regulations. Five such schools opened this year.

Even bigger change may lie in store as school boards and teachers' unions--often the sharpest critics of charter schools--adapt to the reality of laws on the books. This summer, the National Education Association announced that it would work with its affiliates in six states--Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, and Wisconsin--to help members who want to create new schools.

The move marked a surprising shift for the affiliates. Many of them were bitter opponents of legislation in their states, saying charter schools would drain funding for traditional schools and leave staff and students unprotected.

While some charter legislation allows schools to operate independently of the local district, nea affiliates will only help members who want to set up schools still tied to the local district. The goal will be to document charter schools' potential as a systemwide reform.

"It's time for us to get into the fray and shape this in a way to show that you can do innovative things within the system just as you can outside it," says Andrea DiLorenzo, the head of the union's charter school initiative.

"It's a turnaround," says Milo J. Cutter, a member of the Minnesota nea affiliate and the head of the City Academy charter school in St. Paul. "It's probably not the earthquake that some people would want, but it's definitely a turnaround."

Strong and Weak Laws

Still, the impressive gains posted by charters so far mask some problems that could stall the reform idea in the years ahead.

Though the concept calls for schools with maximum freedom from state and local control, some of the laws keep the schools tied to the district and state. Worse, these so-called "weak" or "dead" laws make it nearly impossible for applicants to receive a charter.

Weak laws have plagued the movement from the start, limiting the number of schools that can get off the ground. Fifteen schools have opened in states with weak laws, while 219 are open in the six states with the strongest laws

Georgia allows an unlimited number of charter schools, but only public school staff members can start them. Only three schools are up and running there. In Kansas, only local school boards can sponsor a school, and no one there has even applied.

In most states with weak laws, bills were watered down in the face of opposition from state teachers' unions and school board associations. These groups argued that charters would drain money from districts and undercut child- and workplace-protection laws.

But charter supporters say the unions and school boards have changed their tactics: Rather than fight charter bills, they are supporting weak ones.

This year, for example, the New Jersey Education Association reversed its stance against charter schools and has backed a bill that cleared the legislature's lower chamber almost unanimously.

That legislation, however, would limit the number of charter schools to no more than three per county and would require schools to hire certified teachers, as required by the collective-bargaining agreements in force in most districts. A bill in the Senate proposes no cap on the number of schools and would afford schools greater hiring freedom from the state, but the union's political clout means some sort of compromise is almost certain before any bill can pass.

The apparent change of heart by teachers' unions and school board groups makes charter advocates worry that any new laws passed will pack little punch.

Five of the eight laws passed so far this year are considered frail. "More of the laws coming in now are pretty weak," says Hunter of Charter School Strategies. "And that may be because the education establishment is now saying, 'We'll help."'

New Competition

The 1995 legislative session has also shown that charter schools have stiff new competition from reform ideas whose backers swept into office during last fall's elections.

In Pennsylvania, debate over Gov. Tom Ridge's tuition-voucher plan drowned out discussion of his charter school bill--perhaps one of the strongest proposed this year. And in North Carolina, charter legislation failed to pass as state leaders spent most of their time on a plan to loosen the state reins on schools.

The charter idea is appealing, says Jay Robinson, the newly appointed chairman of North Carolina's board of education, but decentralizing promised to give all the state's 2,000 schools more freedom.

"I see change resulting from charter schools, but I don't see it going as far as we need to go in education," Robinson says. If the decentralization idea succeeds, he adds, "the people who support charters could get everything they're after and more."

A charter bill passed in Texas, but Gov. George W. Bush Jr. believes more change will come from the idea of "home rule" school districts. Home rule, as approved by the legislature, will free districts from most state regulation if residents craft and approve at the ballot box a plan to run their schools.

"I wanted to take the charter concept one step further and allow districts to declare their independence from the state and say, 'We're free to design the schools as we see fit,"' Bush said in an interview this fall.

Unlike a charter law, which allows a few individuals to design schools of their own, the home-rule concept invites entire districts to hash out their ideas of good education, he said. "I can't see anything better than people coming together to talk about their schools and debate and philosophize about how to run their schools."

In political terms, home-rule districts, decentralization, and vouchers may also have replaced charters as the education reforms that draw national attention and mark a governor as a bold leader.

Ridge's voucher push in Pennsylvania stirred talk that he would be the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1996. Other governors said to be contenders for a spot on the 1996 GOP ticket--Bush, Michigan's John Engler, and California's Pete Wilson--all touted plans to scrap their state's education code.

Engler, who pushed Michigan lawmakers in 1994 to pass one of the nation's strongest charter laws, spoke of charters this year as only the first step toward bigger change: home-rule districts. "I believe that charter schools will be the key to unlocking an education renaissance," he said in a speech at the Harvard graduate school of education this spring.

"But I also understand that charter schools are only the beginning," Engler added. "There must be radical change that reaches every district and every student."

Such rhetoric was aimed at a national audience, says Bill Bryant, the chairman of the Michigan Senate education committee and a frequent ally of the governor. Engler "was playing the game of one-upmanship with Bush and Wilson," he explains. "And part of the game was 'let's rewrite the school code."'

A Movement Takes Shape

Some supporters dismiss the notion that the charter idea has peaked. Rather, they say, it is merely shaking out the kinks of early growing pains.

"It's all happened so rapid-fire that we haven't had time to think," says Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform and a charter proponent. "Now, we're starting to think."

Advocates are also building a formal, national network to share expertise and resources. "The charter movement has not been a movement until recently," Allen adds. "It's been a disparate group of people in disparate states who didn't even know each other until they met in the parking lot after a conference one day."

Charters will also likely continue to thrive as a fallback for lawmakers pushing decentralization and vouchers.

Both those reforms are a tough sell. Charters, on the other hand, marry deregulation and market-force impulses in a package that is much more politically palatable. In Michigan, Engler is once again pushing a rewrite of the charter law. Legislators this fall are revamping parts of the education code, but the governor's supporters say he now realizes that he doesn't have legislative support for scrapping it all.

The best hope of charter advocates may lie in studies now under way to determine whether the schools deliver the goods promised in terms of academic achievement and systemic change. But given the traditionally short half-lives of education reforms, such good news can't come soon enough.

The national evaluation of charter schools ordered by the U.S. Department of Education, for example, will not offer any data for another two or three years. "By then," worries lsu's Bierlein, "it may be too late."

Vol. 15, Issue 13

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