The Charter School Zeitgeist

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The politically topical controversy over public schools' quality and the need for charters, choice, and higher standards is but the latest chapter in an intense and ongoing debate that has spanned the latter half of the 20th century and ushered us into the 21st. Beginning in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik I and moving through a series of "crises" reports exemplified by 1983's A Nation at Risk, citizens have periodically been informed that the quality of American education is unacceptably low and have demanded, in turn, a massive transformation of the educational landscape. What appears to be new in this predictable movement from one Zeitgeist to another is that the fight over reforming the school curriculum is now as likely to be engaged in legislative chambers as at school board meetings.

The current advocacy for school choice is distinguished by an enthusiasm for privatization. For example, arguments for choice in the form of vouchers, educational subsidies for private schools, are embedded in a broader set of concerns about the role of government and the maintenance of institutions such as schools. More and more politicians and policymakers have begun arguing the case for the virtues of privatization— turning over government business functions to private companies. Such issues are manifest in many active state and national political debates, including what to do with projected budget surpluses (lower taxes, lower national debt, or increase funding for social services, including schools).

Charter schools are championed by both political parties as another viable mechanism for improving public schools. Charter schools are public schools that are educational experiments that operate under a contract between a state and an individual or a group of individuals. Have an opinion? Click here to send it to us! The charter specifies the conditions under which the school is permitted to operate and typically allows schools more flexibility in the hiring of teachers, the curriculum, and disbursement of funds. Importantly, charter laws vary notably from state to state, and some of these differences are major (Can schools operate for profit? Can uncertified teachers or individuals without a college degree teach?).

There is no doubt that charter schools are politically successful. President Clinton has long been a supporter. When he signed the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998 into law, for example, he said he was pleased that the law "provides new authority for successful charter schools to serve as models, not just for other charter schools, but for public schools generally." Other politicians also have expressed confidence in charter schools. Vice President Al Gore champions them as an important part of his presidential campaign's educational program. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, also placing education high on his presidential-campaign agenda, has said he intends to spend $300 million of public funds to guarantee $3 billion worth of private loans for new charter schools.

Although the initiation of charter school legislation at the state level is widespread, three states in particular have experienced the creation of a large number of charter schools: Arizona, California, and Michigan. The situation in Arizona is instructive: Charter schools were created there in 1994, but already have garnered more than $600 million in appropriations.

Given that considerable money has been spent on charter schools, and that two of the leading candidates in the 2000 presidential race are proposing substantial funding for more charter schools, it is important to ask ourselves, What have we received for this investment of public funds?

For a new book on the school choice debate, we made an extensive review of the existing research on charter schools. Here, in brief, are a few of the broad conclusions we reached:

Critics of the public schools argue that they have become bloated with highly paid—and often unnecessary— administrators, and that schooling as it is currently configured results in reduced spending in support of classroom instruction, something charter schools would change.

In marked contrast to this allegation, the data we reviewed illustrate that charter schools, as a group, have led to the transfer of a significant percentage of states' funds from instructional to administrative costs. Hence, to date, charter schools have increased administrative costs.

Another belief of charter school advocates is that these schools hold the potential for transforming the uniform, one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum and instruction. Unfortunately, this hope for innovation has yet to be realized. In fact, researchers have consistently found that charter schools have not put forth new educational ideas and methods. To date, virtually no exciting new approaches to teaching have occurred in charter schools, despite their smaller classes and freedom from many bureaucratic structures and rules. This lack of innovation, in some states, has occurred despite the fact that charter school legislation often mandates innovation.

Though increased student achievement is touted as one of the many potentially beneficial outcomes of charter schools, student achievement, in general, has not been positively enhanced in charter schools when compared with other public schools. Clearly, as with public schools, some individual charter schools have been associated with high student achievement, while others are associated with dreadful student performance. Given that charter schools spend less on classroom support (teaching, computers, books) and have not implemented new ideas, it is not surprising that student achievement has not been enhanced.

Supporters of public schools have argued that charter public schools avoid special education students. We found that, although there are some notable exceptions, charter schools have generally not accommodated special-needs students, and many charter schools operate in violation of federal law.

Critics also have noted that charter schools have increased social segregation in their recruitment of students. Indeed, charter schools in general have further segregated students on the basis of income level, ethnicity, and special needs. Some charter schools have even been organized around parents' cultural and religious beliefs. If this practice continues, such schools will lead to a larger social separation of Americans—creating and maintaining schools that affirm and re-establish certain social, economic, religious, and cultural boundaries.

These are but a few of the findings we have gleaned from our own research and our review of others'. In some cases, charter schools have allowed creative individuals to develop exciting new educational settings for children. But, these successes notwithstanding, we conclude that, to date, the investment of public monies in charter schools is much more representative of a wasteful experiment than an informative one.

Despite these negative findings, we are not anti-charter school, per se. But our belief that charter schools might play a useful role as a laboratory site for research-and-development activities for public schools is predicated on the need to change state laws and accounting mechanisms in important ways.

With modified legislation, charter schools represent a mechanism for encouraging innovation, especially in inner-city schools. Unfortunately, the political process that regulates charter schools needs to hold them accountable for innovation and for assessing the effects of that innovation on student development. Otherwise, we will not be able to understand or learn from this educational experiment. In our book, we have provided detailed suggestions about the needed reforms in state laws and supervisory mechanisms.

Meanwhile, as politicians continue to debate educational issues in the coming months, we hope they will listen to informed citizens. And as these politicians' educational perspectives become more differentiated, we hope that issues of quality, not just of form, will become more prevalent in the great school debate.

Thomas L. Good is a professor and the head of educational psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Jennifer S. Braden, a former special education teacher, is a doctoral student in educational psychology. They are the authors of The Great School Debate: Choice, Vouchers, and Charters, recently published by Erlbaum.

Vol. 19, Issue 27, Pages 45, 48

Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as The Charter School Zeitgeist
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