School Choice & Charters Commentary

A Charter School Decade

By Joe Nathan — May 29, 2002 9 min read
The charter school movement has produced some winning institutional models, weathered tough criticism, and overcome some daunting obstacles to its continuation.

The charter public school movement marks its first decade this year. Amid the inevitable stock-taking, what seems clear is this: The drive toward greater innovation and choice in public schools has produced some winning institutional models, weathered tough criticism, and overcome some daunting obstacles to its continuation. To be sure, the movement has attracted charlatans as well as champions. But progress overall has been remarkable. Advocates such as the civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and organizations such as the YMCA and the National Council of La Raza have lent legitimacy and their active support. And the numbers alone are impressive: We have gone, since 1992, from one state to 38 states with charter laws, from one public charter school to almost 2,500.

Here, from the perspective of one who has spent 30 years as an urban public school teacher, administrator, researcher, advocate, parent, and PTA president, is a brief look back and a glimpse of what lies ahead:

First, the winners. Just as outstanding district schools have much to teach educators elsewhere, effective charters have produced innovative, replicable programs in curriculum, governance, family involvement, and shared facilities and staffs. A few of the many lessons that successful charters offer include these:

  • The Mesa Arts Academy, a K-8 charter school in Mesa, Ariz., shows how schools can share space and staff members with community groups and social agencies—to benefit the missions of both institutions. Working cooperatively with a Boys & Girls Club in a low-income area of Mesa has helped the charter school lift its students’ academic skills in several areas—showing, in fact, greater improvement than any other public school in Arizona.
  • Colorado’s Academy Charter blends Howard Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences with E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s Core Curriculum. Academy students study ancient Greek myths and culture, as Mr. Hirsch recommends, but they learn, as Mr. Gardner would suggest, in many different ways, from building models of the Parthenon to presenting summaries of classical Greek plays. The Colorado Department of Education has recognized this program as one of the state’s most effective at improving student achievement.
  • In California, Los Angeles’ Vaughn Charter School and Sacramento’s Bowling Green Charter School provide a vivid demonstration of how converting from district to charter status can boost achievement in urban settings. The two charters had greater gains in achievement over five years than did many nearby schools serving similar populations.
  • The Boston- based Academy for the Pacific Rim combines Asian and American ideas about learning. The school opens with a daily assembly for students, giving some a gambatte award, which is a Japanese term meaning to “persist, and keep going.” Classes begin with students and teachers standing, bowing, and thanking one another for their efforts. On various measures, the academy ranks above all other Boston secondary schools except the few that, unlike the APR, have admissions tests.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given $4 million to replicate the Minnesota New Country School, a rural charter serving 125 students in grades 7-12. This charter starts each school year with family- student-teacher conferences for all its students. These culminate in an individualized program for every student. The school has no grades, bells, or formal classes. Faculty members have formed a co-op, through which they pay themselves—often more than nearby district teachers.
Not everything has been rosy for charter schools. The movement has taken hard criticism and suffered many setbacks in its first decade.

Gates Foundation officials also have convened charter and district educators at forums through which they share and learn from one another, a terrific idea. Other foundations, universities, and state departments of education could—and should—do the same thing.

It is through these successful school models that the charter movement is influencing and helping to improve some school districts. Both federal and university-based research give glimpses of this catalytic role in encouraging broader changes. We need to hasten the process of exchange, so that folks are learning more and faster from each other.

Not everything has been rosy for charter schools, however. The movement has taken hard criticism and suffered many setbacks in its first decade. Some of its troubles were self-produced; some were generated by steadfast opponents. Let’s start with self-inflicted wounds.

Charters have attracted some greedy people who put making money before student needs. School boards and states have not always adequately checked out the people proposing charters. Some of these people have run poorly designed, ineffective schools. And some companies haven’t managed charters well, and have charged large fees.

Charters also have a mixed record when it comes to students with disabilities. Some don’t understand their legal responsibilities. But former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has praised charters such as New Visions in Minneapolis, which is helping both districts and charter schools replicate its creative, effective approaches to educating special-needs students. Labeling youngsters as learning- disabled or as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder doesn’t necessarily help them. Some of these students may thrive simply by being in a smaller, more flexible, individualized program. So the fact that some charters may have fewer “special ed.” students can be a good sign, rather than a problem.

A few critics allege that charter school accountability is nonexistent. Yet, while assessment practices can and should be improved, many schools and sponsors are developing explicit goals and are using standardized tests and performance assessments to measure progress toward meeting those goals. The state of Colorado and the city of Chicago have among the strongest charter-accountability systems in the nation and could serve as models for others.

Some charters have been criticized for low test scores in their first few years, a time when what was really being measured was what the students had learned (or failed to learn) in their previous schools.

Moreover, some charters have been criticized for low test scores in their first few years, a time when what was really being measured was what the students had learned (or failed to learn) in their previous schools. The key question should be: Are charters improving achievement, using various measures, over a three- to five-year period? If not, they should be closed.

Charter challengers sometimes quote the movement’s own self-criticism to discredit it. But any effective reform effort learns from its mistakes, while celebrating its successes. And charter schools are no different. Opponents also inaccurately equate charters and vouchers. The charter idea rejects admissions tests for public schools, stresses nonsectarian education, and insists on accountability for improved student achievement.

Finally, some criticism of charter schools seems hypocritical. After inaccurately predicting that charters would enroll predominantly affluent white students, for example, some naysayers now criticize charters for enrolling too many low-income, minority students.

The work of “researchers” who can’t find innovation in charters reminds me of what the African-American writer Ralph Ellison said in his classic, Invisible Man: “I am invisible, not because I don’t exist, but because you refuse to see me.”

Nonetheless, the opposition of many forces within the field, including but not limited to teachers’ unions, school boards, and university- based apologists for the status quo, has built an impressive wall of obstacles for the charter movement to scale. That these forces have not succeeded in blocking or blunting the movement is a testament to the fact that charter schools tap into four of America’s best ideas: that people should have a chance to carry out their dreams; that we all have responsibilities, along with rights; that we support freedom within limits; and that we are weary of monopolies. Charters represent all these ideas.

A further obstacle for charters has been the school building itselfthat is to say, finding one, along with a way to pay for it. Several states, among them Florida and Minnesota, provide funding for charter school buildings, since these entities can’t levy taxes themselves, as most school districts can. Most states with charter laws, however, don’t yet provide such aid.

A few states, in fact, have gone overboard in their demands of those seeking to create a charter school— requiring, for example, that a school have a building before its application is approved. Officials should expect applicants to have a tentative commitment about a site. But unless the applicants are millionaires—or large organizations— they aren’t likely to be able to acquire a building before their application is approved. Some charters share space with social service groups, museums, businesses, and others. This is one way that schools are stretching tax dollars and providing better services for students.

Another debate involving charters has to do with expectations. How much should we expect from public schools? Certain charter critics insist that traditional public schools are doing well, given their resources. The major problems schools face, they say, come from troubled families, corporate detractors, and uninformed critics.

The charter movement finds itself on the other side of this philosophical wall. And it scares many critics precisely because it offers support for the notion of schools’ major impact on youngsters, while also advocating that changes be made in the status quo.

The charter school represents, for the most part, people at the grassroots level moved to experiment and problem-solve to find a better way to educate children.

Improving society and improving schools go hand in hand, according to this movement. That’s why many African-American and Hispanic activists see charters as a hopeful, encouraging development, not as a threat. It’s why Rosa Parks is trying to start a charter school in Detroit. It’s why some charter school teachers moved from district schools: They saw important new opportunities in this movement.

A young man I knew 20 years ago as a bright but troubled student recently helped start an inner-city charter school, where he now teaches. This boy has pulled his life together after flirting with jail time and other potential disasters. He’s working in a charter, he says, because “this is a way I can make a difference, helping the angry, frustrated people like I used to be.”

If we keep listening to, learning from, and sharing with such committed educators, the charter movement will continue to grow. Despite all the hard, protracted criticism, all the unyielding problems and barriers to scale, the movement’s growth to date remains phenomenal. And because it represents, for the most part, people at the grassroots level moved to experiment and problem-solve to find a better way to educate children, the decade’s accomplishment is also inspiring. It reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem “The People, Yes.” As the poet says: “The people will live on. The learning and blundering people will live on.”

Joe Nathan, a former urban public school educator, helped write Minnesota’s charter law and directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Charter School Decade


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