Charter-Style Schools Catching on Across the World

Pioneering U.S. may be in best position to teach lessons to other nations

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In the United Kingdom, an investor with £2 million—a little more than $3 million in U.S. currency—can start a publicly financed, privately run school.

That model of schooling, which the British call academies, is among a growing number of charter-style schools that are popping up in countries around the world, according to a pair of University of Southern California researchers. Dominic J. Brewer and Guilbert C. Hentschke studied the growth of these new-breed, hybrid schools in more than a dozen countries, including the United States.

Their observations were published this month in a chapter in the Handbook of Research on School Choice, a first-of-a-kind primer summarizing a wide swath of research on alternatives to traditional public schools. Pulled together under the auspices of the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., the book’s 34 chapters were contributed by scholars all along the continuum in debates over school choice issues.

"Historically, various countries have had some mechanism in place for providing some public support for private schools," said Mr. Brewer, a professor of education, economics, and policy at USC, in Los Angeles. "But there does seem to be this worldwide phenomenon over the last 15 years, and in countries where you wouldn’t think they would be following this similar policy path."

Replacing Failing Schools

Having opened its first charter school in 1992, the United States may be a pioneer of the modern charter concept, which allows selected schools to operate in the public sector with more autonomy than regular public schools. The authors point, however, to at least 14 other countries, spanning three continents, in which national and regional governments have taken recent steps to introduce some form of market-based schooling into their public education systems.

Cutting Across Cultures

Researchers compared countries’ policies on key aspects of charter-style schooling.

Besides the United Kingdom, which introduced its academies in 2003, other countries include: Argentina, Australia, parts of Canada, Chile, parts of China, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Qatar, Singapore, and Tanzania.

"We have, relative to many countries, a fairly decentralized system, and our version of charters is quite decentralized," said Mr. Hentschke, a professor of public school administration who advised British school officials on some of their newer efforts to form charter-like schools. "This is actually a bigger step for [other countries], in some respects, than it is for us."

In the United Kingdom, though, a variety of alternatives to the regular school system have operated for years. Besides the new academies, they include grant-maintained schools, foundation schools, and city technology colleges. In most cases, the schools can be operated by for-profit businesses, colleges, foundations, or faith-based providers, the paper says.

Under the academies initiative, though, an investor, in return for that £2 million upfront contribution, can play a significant role in creating the school, determining its special curricular focus, securing its premises, and appointing members of its governing body. The local education authority, for its part, determines where the new school will be­—usually in an inner-city area where schools are performing poorly—and helps pay to build a new school or renovate an old one. (Typically in the United States, local governments will not foot the bill for new construction.)

"Very often, these will be newly constructed schools that replace existing schools so, in that respect, they’re a little more like conversion charters," said Mr. Hentschke, referring to regular U.S. public schools that shift to charter status. “The government is very much engaged in bringing these schools on line."

In Qatar, on the other hand, the goal is to convert all the country’s public schools to charter-like entities within a decade, and the wealthy Persian Gulf nation is well on its way. The country’s 87 publicly funded, independent schools already enroll 60 percent of its schoolchildren.

"The idea is that these would not be just a few interesting schools on the periphery of the system, but rather that this would be the model that would serve all kids," said Mr. Brewer, who was one of the consultants hired by Qatar to redesign its school system, a process that began in 2001.

The country set up a separate agency, independent of its education ministry, to oversee the system. Qatar chose that route, Mr. Brewer said, partly because the existing system was seen as too bureaucratic and resistant to change.

Now, any Qatari citizen, including religiously affiliated groups, private schools, and former school administrators, can found an independent, publicly financed school, according to the report. The list originally included for-profit businesses, too, but policymakers later reversed that decision.

More Alike Than Different

Likewise, in the Netherlands, government-subsidized independent schools are already the norm. Schools can choose their own curricula and teachers, but they must meet central-government standards for pupil-teacher ratios and in other areas.

And in France, the level of funding that private schools receive depends on how much control they are willing to relinquish to the government.

The biggest difference between U.S. charter schools and their international cousins seems to be whether publicly funded independent schools can be religiously affiliated. In most countries they can, and in some nations, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, that has long been the case.

But Mr. Hentschke said he was more struck by the similarities than the differences among publicly financed but privately run schools across nations. Across the board, for instance, countries or regional education authorities use testing systems to maintain some measure of control over what gets taught in such schools. In most cases, independent schools also have more control over teacher hiring and firing than their traditional counterparts.

The researchers also say their cross-national review of charter-style schools suggests the new entities may not turn out as innovative as their founders had hoped.

"There’s some danger of regression to the mean," said Mr. Brewer. That can occur, the report says, as charter schools grow in number, forcing them to look for new hires and families from a pool that may be more risk-averse than their current school communities.

With a 17-year track record, and charter schools operating in 40 states and in cities that are as large as Qatar, the United States, in the end, may be the real expert on this new form of schooling, said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"I think the lessons we had to learn about charter schools we accomplished 10 years ago," he said, "and we assimilated them."

Vol. 28, Issue 32, Page 10

Published in Print: May 20, 2009, as Charter-Style Schools Catching On Across the World
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