Public Charter Schools

May 05, 1991

The "Baltimore and Beyond" report recommendation for "public charter schools" is not new -- it is the liberal version of the voucher plans advanced 20 years ago -- but it is in consonance with the latest thrust in education reform.

Under the "Baltimore and Beyond" proposals, teachers, principals or civic organizations could form their own schools, independent of the local school bureaucracy. The schools would receive a per-pupil payment from state and local governments equal to the average spent in public schools. They would be subject to state teacher certification and testing, but beyond that would have broad latitude to teach what and how they want. Parents would choose schools for their children.

A number of states and local school districts are currently experimenting with allowing student and parent choice. The assumption is that in a competitive market place, schools will have to do better in order to attract and retain students. The Bush administration's "education strategy," issued two weeks ago, also calls for choice, including "all schools that serve the public and are accountable to public authority, regardless of who runs them."

The charter school idea shares some basic assumptions with Mayor Kurt Schmoke's plan for school reform: school-based management. Here, the assumption is that decisions about serving students can be made better at the school level -- where parents and community can interact with teachers and administrators -- than by a centralized bureaucracy.

There are a number of potential pitfalls in the public charter plan: Should church-related schools be allowed to receive public funds? How can parents with the least resources be given the information they need to choose wisely? Would the public system be left with those teachers and principals, parents and students who have the least initiative?

But there are a number of attractive aspects of the plan as well, particularly the chance to shake up a slow-to-change public system. As Mayor Schmoke proceeds with his experiment in school-based management, he should consider how outside groups can be incorporated in providing new models of instruction and, as schools differentiate themselves, how parents and students can choose which schools best serve their needs.

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