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On the Outskirts

In many metropolitan areas, charter schools are like the city skyline: glimpsed by suburbanites only from afar.

But while charter schools remain largely an urban phenomenon in many states, a few have bucked that trend. Education researcher Pushpam Jain wondered why that is, and studied three states where suburban charter schools have taken root, and at a fourth where they generally have not. His paper on what he found was published last month by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

The 26-page paper focuses on Colorado, Connecticut, and New Jersey, which have sizable percentages of their charter schools in the suburbs, and Illinois, which has few suburban charters. Colorado suburbs were home to more than 47 percent of the state's 76 charter schools in 2000-01, the highest proportion in the nation, the paper reports.

Whether a state's charter school law is seen by advocates as "strong" or "weak" is less important in influencing the prevalence of suburban charters than the actions of state officials, says Mr. Jain, a former assistant research professor at the college of education at the University of Maine in Orono.

In Colorado, Connecticut, and New Jersey, the parents who spearheaded most efforts to start suburban charter schools benefited from "a powerful state education administration that combined outreach efforts with support for interested applicants," the paper says.

By contrast, Mr. Jain writes, the Illinois state board of education "is not nearly as supportive of charters," providing "neither an outreach program to attract charter applicants nor a supportive structure to assist them." Only three charter schools had been approved for the Chicago suburbs as of last year, even though 15 are available for that area under state law.

Moreover, the paper contends, charter applicants from the Chicago suburbs succeeded more because of their political connections than "the merit of their applications."

Marilyn McMonachie, the vice chairwoman of the Illinois state school board, denied in an interview that either the board or the state education department had been unsupportive. She called the notion that the board had been swayed by politics "nonsense," and she attributed the small number of charter schools in the Chicago suburbs to a lack of interest among residents.

—Caroline Hendrie [email protected]

Vol. 22, Issue 5, Page 6

Published in Print: October 2, 2002, as Charter Schools

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