School Choice & Charters

Redefining ‘Public’ Schools

By Lynn Olson — April 26, 2000 17 min read

When Linda Armstrong’s first five children were growing up in Milwaukee, they basically had one option for getting an education: the public school nearest their home.

This coming fall, Ms. Armstrong plans to send her 11-year-old daughter to a district-run school that offers a gifted-and-talented program. Her 9-year-old son will attend an Afrocentric charter school sponsored by the city of Milwaukee. Her 5-year-old grandson, meanwhile, attends a private school that participates in the city’s voucher program.

“I’ve been in the school system for about 20 or 25 years,” Ms. Armstrong said. “This is the best that I’ve seen. The options have grown immensely, and I really do credit the charter and choice programs.”

Milwaukee may be an extreme example, but around the country, the notion of a one-size-fits-all school system is slowly giving way to a new, consumer-oriented model that could change the very definition of “public” schools.

No longer must such schools be run by a government and be managed by a superintendent and local board. In 34 states, parents like Ms. Armstrong can now choose from among nearly 1,700 publicly financed charter schools, which operate free from many state and local regulations and can be run by a wide range of organizations—community groups, former private schools, even for-profit companies.

In Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida, parents of eligible students can send them to private schools, including religious schools, through taxpayer-financed voucher programs. And in Arizona, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, families can benefit from tax credits that help cover the costs of a private education.

About This Series

> Part 1: April 26, 2000. The rise of charter schools, voucher programs, and other new ways of providing public education.

Part 2:May 3, 2000. Are these innovations leading to better student achievement?
Part 3:May 10, 2000. The color of choice: charter schools and race.
Part 4:May 17, 2000. Keeping track: holding charter and voucher programs accountable.
Part 5:May 24, 2000. How traditional public schools are reacting (or not) to the competition.
This series is supported in part by the Ford Foundation.

To some observers, these new arrangements point to a day in which a public school might be defined as any school that is open to the public, receives public dollars, and is accountable to public authorities for results.

How far Americans have ventured down that road—and whether it’s a desirable journey—depends on whom you ask.

“If we were talking about the history of automobiles, I guess we’d say there are a handful of Model T’s roaming the streets and periodically colliding with one another, but most people are still driving horse-and-buggies,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, based in Washington, and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education in the Reagan administration. “That is to say, we may be in the early days of one of these paradigm shifts, but we can’t be sure yet. We could just as easily turn out to be in the middle of a failed revolution.”

The theory behind such changes is that the combined pressures of consumer choice and market competition will force education to shape up, in the same way that international competition spurred U.S. corporations to restructure themselves in the 1980s.

Proponents claim that charter schools, vouchers, and other new means of providing education will produce higher achievement; encourage innovation; promote equity by giving poor families, in particular, more options; and foster accountability by enabling dissatisfied consumers to vote with their feet.

But others worry that, in practice, competition will drain money from public schools without giving them the wherewithal to improve; decrease public accountability and oversight; increase racial and ethnic segregation; undercut the notion of the “common school"; and further concentrate the least advantaged students in the least advantaged schools.

“Most of the proposals on the table are not here to support public schools but to pull the rug out from under our funding,” Hilary O. Shelton, the director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said at a conference on school vouchers held in Washington earlier this year. The civil rights group opposes both vouchers and charter schools.

It’s hard to tell which outcome will prevail without a critical mass of such approaches to evaluate, cautions Eric Hirsch, a senior policy specialist for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Despite all the rhetoric and news stories devoted to them, charter schools still enroll less than 1 percent of the national school-age population. Voucher programs and for-profit ventures account for even fewer students.

But that will slowly change, Mr. Hirsch predicts. “In terms of what a public school should look like,” he said, “I think both [political] parties are willing to let go and be visionaries more than they would have in the past.”

Strange Bedfellows

A host of factors have given rise to the new approaches.

In part, the changes reflect the increasingly popular belief that government officials should demand results but leave the actual provision of services to others, as long as they can deliver. If a community group or private school can do a better job of educating students than a school district can, under this line of thinking, then it should get a chance to do so.

The newfound willingness to experiment has been bolstered by a deepening frustration about the possibility of fixing the existing school system, especially in inner cities, using traditional means.

Meanwhile, the red-hot economy of the 1990s created a new generation of venture capitalists looking for ways to make money, and many of them cast their eyes on school management. And, in a consumer-oriented society that’s become used to a dizzying array of selections in everything from breakfast cereals to telephone service, people like options.

“Americans are looking for choices,” said Henry M. Levin, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization at Teachers College, Columbia University. “They’re looking for alternatives. And they feel very frustrated if they think they don’t have either choices or enough choices.”

This diversity of rationales is reflected in the broad range of supporters that have lined up behind charter schools and vouchers. There are free marketeers who believe that government should stop financing education entirely, and who view vouchers as one step in that direction; rural communities that are trying to stave off the consolidation of local schools by converting them to charter schools; teachers and parents who are teaming up with philanthropists to put innovative ideas into practice; and religious schools that are looking to vouchers as a way to shore up their enrollments and financial future.

The Rev. Luis Cortes, the director of Nueva Esperanza, a community-development corporation in Philadelphia, reflects the kind of bridge politics that are driving many of these new arrangements forward. The Baptist minister’s wife is a public school teacher, his son attends a Roman Catholic school, and his organization is in the midst of launching a charter high school that will open in September.

“In a community where there are high dropouts rates, very low literacy rates, overcrowded classrooms, and a myriad of obstacles in the acquisition of education for our kids,” he explained, “anything that is innovative, that is different, that tries [to do better] is being welcomed.”

That sort of pragmatism is producing some strange bedfellows. In Cleveland, for example, low-income and minority parents have lined up with Republican lawmakers and conservative philanthropists to support a school voucher program. And in New York state, Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, teamed up with urban Democratic legislators and members of the business community to help pass a charter school law.

Charters vs. Vouchers

But while the twin ideas of choice and competition have become increasingly popular, deep divisions remain about how they should best be pursued and where to draw the line between the public and private sectors in education.

In particular, a number of those who support the idea of charter schools remain adamantly opposed to vouchers, which they view as undermining the whole concept of public education. At the same time, some voucher proponents worry that charters will cut the wind from their sails.

So far, in the race between the two innovations, charters are clearly winning. In 1991, there wasn’t a single charter school in the United States. Today, 36 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation allowing them, and the federal government is providing $145 million this fiscal year to support their expansion. In the meantime, only three states have created even small-scale voucher programs, and two of those—in Cleveland and Florida—are currently being challenged in court.

To their proponents, charter schools are the “grand compromise,” able to generate broad, bipartisan support. Republicans like their emphasis on choice, competition, and deregulation. Democrats like the fact that they are still public schools: open to all, free of charge, nonreligious, and accountable to public authorities.

But in some cases, the apparent consensus masks important differences in supporters’ end goals. Lamar Alexander, for example, the former governor of Tennessee and U.S. secretary of education under President Bush, views charters as “step one” on the way to a full-blown choice system that would include public, private, and religious schools. Others believe charters will undercut the need for more radical alternatives.

As Richard P. Mills, the commissioner of education in New York state, told The Associated Press, “I think a very forthright approach to charter schools makes [vouchers] unnecessary.”

“Charters are clearly ahead in terms of their magnitude and their impact,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which tracks and promotes school choice. But, she added, “what’s making them progress is all these other parallel movements and structures.”

If only for pragmatic reasons, many groups that once supported vouchers are now throwing their weight behind the charter movement. In part, that’s because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of providing parents with public dollars to send their children to private and religious schools. In part, it’s because charters are politically palatable to a wider audience.

For the past three years, Kristin Kearns Jordan was the executive director of the School Choice Scholarships Foundation, which provides privately financed scholarships for poor and minority students in New York City to attend private schools. But these days, Ms. Jordan is working to open a charter school in the South Bronx.

As a charter school operator, she pointed out, she’ll get more money than from a voucher program. And there’s the “halo” effect, she said. “As a public charter school, we’re less threatening,” Ms. Jordan said. “We have an easier time operating.”

“A lot of the groups who were on board with vouchers are now focusing on charter schools, trying to make sure that reform blossoms and works well,” said Nina Shokraii Rees, an education analyst for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research institute. “I think it’s just for practical purposes. Most of our students are in public schools. You already have public school buildings. And simply shifting them from being run by government to being privately run is a quicker way to fix the system.”

Niche for Business

Several for-profit management companies, venture capitalists, and corporate philanthropists have also weighed in on the side of charter schools.

At least a dozen for-profit companies, led by the New York City-based Edison Schools Inc., are trying to make money by running charter schools.

In California, Reed Hastings, a member of the state board of education and the chief executive officer of Netflix, an Internet movie site, helped found the New Schools Ventures Fund, a multimillion-dollar venture philanthropy that invests in charters and other innovations in public education. “I’m convinced that within the California political climate, the way that we can best have a positive impact on education is to have charter schools be the acceptable reform strategy,” he said.

Similarly, the Prudential Insurance Corp. has chosen to put some $20 million into loans to support charter schools.

“Disproportionately, the students in charter schools are disadvantaged in one way or another,” said John Kinghorn, the director of the company’s social-investment program. “That’s the most obvious reason for our support for charter schools. The second reason, which is less obvious but much more important, is that charter schools have the potential for moving the greater system. For us, it’s part of a comprehensive strategy to improve public education.”

Unions or Charters

Even the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—which remain adamantly opposed to vouchers—support the idea of charter schools, although they add a number of caveats. For example, the NEA insists that charter schools meet nearly 15 conditions, including that they have no negative impact on the regular public school program, hire only licensed teachers, and do not contribute to racial or ethnic segregation. Both unions also favor state caps on the number of such schools.

“I’m in favor of charter schools that are accountable and adhere to the same standards as all other public schools,” said Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT. “We’re not for charter schools that can just go off and do their own thing.”

As part of its charter schools initiative, begun in 1995, the NEA helped launch charter schools in five states, primarily as a research project. In states such as New Jersey, said Andrea DiLorenzo, a policy analyst for the NEA, the union is now organizing about one charter school a week.

In reality, critics charge, teachers’ unions have led the fight against charter school legislation in many states, or pressed for “weak” laws. (Charter school proponents refer to “strong” laws as those that allow for a large number of charters, started and authorized by a variety of groups, with minimal administrative regulations. “Weak” laws limit the number of charters, who can create them, and their regulatory independence.)

Last year, for example, the California Teachers Association almost persuaded the state legislature to mandate collective bargaining in all charter schools. Also in 1999, an officer of the Michigan Education Association warned a state university president that if his institution chartered any schools that did not meet the MEA’s standards, union members would cease to donate money to the university, refuse to accept its students as teacher trainees, and decline to participate in university training programs.

“There is a pitched battle going on all over the country, and I don’t think it’s abating,” said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. “In many, many states, the teachers’ unions are fighting very hard against strong charter laws, and that includes this state. The education establishment’s opposition to the expansion of opportunities for families is relentless.”

Support Shallow?

And the bipartisan support for charters may not be as deep as first appears. Bryan C. Hassel, the founder of Public Impact, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm, and the author of The Charter School Challenge, analyzed the politics in states with strong and weak charter school laws.

He found that states in which Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature were substantially more likely to pass early and strong charter-school laws. The same was true for states with Republican governors between 1991 and 1995. In contrast, no state with a Democratic governor and two Democratic houses passed a strong charter school law during that period.

“My basic impression is that for middle-of-the-road Democrats to get behind a strong charter law, as opposed to a weak one, they have to have a pretty powerful reason because the incentives are against them,” Mr. Hassel said.

He argues that the political compromises necessary in many states to pass charter school legislation, and the subsequent implementation problems, have so undermined the financial and legal viability of such schools that it has severely hampered their ability to live up to their promise.

Advancing regulatory creep, he and others fear, could slowly strangle charter schools or make them look more and more like regular public schools.

“ ‘Administrivia’ is a school principal’s middle name when it comes to being part of a state-run public system,” Tom Commeret, the principal of the Marblehead Community Charter Public School, a 176-student middle school in Marblehead, Mass., wrote in a comment by electronic mail. “If I had a dollar for every report, inspection, re-submission of lost reports, endless forms, and otherwise tedious responsibilities that the state throws our way, I could build a school!”

In contrast, some opponents of charter schools, vouchers, and other new arrangements contend that the oversight of such schools is too minimal, resulting in wide variations in quality. And even their proponents admit that, in most states and districts, the accountability systems governing those schools are grossly underdeveloped.

In Arizona, for instance, financial mismanagement, inflated enrollment figures, and other problems have plagued some charter schools, while a provision enabling districts to sponsor charters hundreds of miles from their borders has encouraged abuse.

“What we have very great trouble with is a law, such as the one in Arizona, where literally it takes a couple of bucks to start a school,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. “And the system of accountability has not been rigorous. We’re after the rigor that says, ‘Are students learning and achieving?’”

Elephants and Mosquitoes

The pressure to show results may be the biggest challenge for the charter school movement and for other departures from the traditional school system.

“We stand on the verge of creating a new supply of schools,” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, “and the question is going to be, ‘Are a large majority of them pretty good, or a small minority?’ ”

While virtually all studies suggest that the families of students who enroll in charter or voucher programs are satisfied with their choices, the evidence on achievement gains is mixed.

Researchers aren’t even sure how to evaluate the new arrangements. For example, to be considered a success, do such schools have to perform as well as traditional public schools, better than traditional public schools, or as well as schools serving a comparable student population? Should nontraditional schools be judged solely on state test scores, or on other measures of their own choosing?

Moreover, little evidence is available about the effects that such programs have on the students who do not participate and who remain behind in the existing public schools.

In Milwaukee, Ms. Armstrong contends, families whose children are enrolled in charter and voucher schools aren’t the only ones who have benefited from competition in the education marketplace.

“One of the advantages of the choice and charter programs, even for parents like myself who have kept their children in the public school system, is that the competition made the public school system have to offer some increased programs,” she argued. “I see that for those people who aren’t leaving the system, [the Milwaukee public school system] is making an effort to keep them.”

Yet to date, studies suggest, the impact of the added options on the traditional school system has been limited and varies from place to place. While many state legislators may look on charters as laboratories for innovative practices that will spread to other schools, that’s not necessarily occurring.

“In some localities, charter schools and other new options are going to challenge the system quite profoundly, as they have in Milwaukee,” Mr. Hill said. “Whether it’s going to spread beyond those localities, I don’t know. There’s obviously a lot of middle-class resistance in the suburbs to changing the way public education operates.”

Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Bush, argues that people shouldn’t be frightened about the impact these novel governance arrangements will have on education.

“Vouchers and charters, I suggest, will not destroy public education,” Ms. Ravitch said. “This is an incredible and fantastic fear. This is like an elephant complaining about the mosquito on its shoulder. Please, why are people so frightened of such an insignificant prospect?”

“Let the experiment happen,” she argued. “Let the choices take place. And let’s see what we learn.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Redefining ‘Public’ Schools


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