Charter schools -- and those who resist them

November 04, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

ACROSS AMERICA, the charter-school movement -- a wave of new public schools held accountable for the performance for their students -- is thriving. This fall there are some 375 charter schools operating in 27 states.

But a dark cloud hangs over the movement. In state after state, local school boards and teacher unions are trying to quash charters. The reason: The spirited, upstart charter schools -- usually created by groups of teachers, parents or local colleges -- are a threat to established school bureaucracies and unions' exclusive bargaining rights.

Reports the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute: ''Charter schools may be the most vibrant force in American education today. They are also a subversive influence with the potential to do great harm to the status quo and great good to children.''

Hudson rebuts opponents' charge that charters are elitist enclaves that simply siphon top students from regular public schools. Its sampling of 42 charter schools in seven states found that 63 percent of the 8,400 students were minority-group members.

The University of Minnesota's Joe Nathan, in his just-released book ''Charter Schools'' (Jossey-Bass), reports that many of the schools are organized to serve students who were below-average performers or abject failures at their prior schools.

The 4-year-old City Academy in St. Paul, for example, accepts only dropouts from elsewhere. Many students explain, ''I didn't think anyone cared'' or ''I was too far behind.'' Most are low-income and minority youth. The academy has created an atmosphere of respect and high expectations. It has a waiting list of applicants. It easily won rechartering by local authorities last year, based on excellence in performance.

Charter schools, Hudson reports, are drawing talented, unconventional teachers. It found parents and students are attracted by charter schools' atmosphere of rigorous academic expectations, safety, committed teachers and ''family-like'' feeling.

Across America, that story is being repeated. Mr. Nathan cites pioneers like Rexford Brown, who founded and runs the award-winning PSI in inner-city Denver. Or Richard Farias, a community-center leader and advocate of Hispanic kids in Houston, who in fact has local teacher-union support in his bid to open a charter school.

Yet 375 charter schools nationwide are a drop in the bucket in contrast to the need for lively new schools with a capacity to gain kids' attention and loyalty.

Political muscle

Mr. Nathan cites cases from more than a dozen states in which unions or school boards have exerted political muscle to block charter schools altogether, put a strict limit on how many can be created, or restrict sponsorship to local boards. In Michigan and Minnesota, he reports, there's been outright union intimidation of colleges trying to sponsor charter schools.

Charter-school expert Ted Kolderie of St. Paul says the education establishment understands that the public demand for charters can't be denied altogether. But school boards and unions demand ''weak'' charter measures that forbid ''alternative sponsors that would create real dynamics'' of change. To revoke school boards' ''exclusive franchise'' and ''remove from the districts their ability to take their students for granted'' he suggests letting another public body -- a city, a county, a state education department -- grant charters.

Mr. Kolderie found that the states with the strongest charter schools -- California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas -- allow non-school board sponsorship (or fairly easy appeals if a school board says ''no''). By contrast, in the states where there's no appeal if a local school board refuses -- Arkansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, for example -- scarcely any charters have been approved.

Unless state law breaks the prevailing monopoly pattern, potential charter sponsors with innovative ideas have to go to the very school board whose education leadership has already been found disappointing.

''Imagine,'' says Mr. Nathan, ''people who want to open a new restaurant, gas station or hardware store having to get permission to open the new business from their competitors. It would be tough, right?''

Unions are insisting that charter schools hire only certified teachers and maintain collective bargaining. That excludes incompetents, but also brilliant professionals who might spend some years in a classroom. And it stops a charter school from tying the evaluation and pay of teachers to student achievement, a measure unions traditionally oppose.

Most charter schools are not for profit, receiving equivalent state funds per pupil for the students they recruit. At their best, they emulate the vigorous spirit of successful professional firms, from law to accounting to landscape architecture.

That means a cadre of people with enthusiasm for the challenge, dependence on each other for success, and a passion for staying ahead. That's what we owe our children.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 11/04/96

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