Charter schools, competition at work

August 31, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

IN ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., the Metropolitan Ministries Academy, a charter school, has opened inside a homeless shelter, working with children who're often deeply scarred by their parents' poverty and personal misfortunes.

In Boston, although teachers unions are often hostile to charter schools, unionized carpenters and electricians in the Dorchester neighborhood have donated tens of thousands of dollars of their labor to restore an unused convent for the new Neighborhood House Charter School.

The Colin Powell Academy, a charter in a blighted area of Detroit's East Side, is tailored specifically to its neighborhood, requiring uniforms and a strict code of conduct. Its students have posted a 22-point gain in fourth-grade reading, 57 points in fourth-grade math, and 13 points in fifth-grade science.

Colin Powell Academy's close attention to curriculum is what most schools of Detroit's sprawling 180,000-student system simply can't offer, Deputy Superintendent Arthur Carter told the Detroit News. "This is the history of American education." said Mr. Carter. "In the beginning, public schools were one-room schoolhouses with lay [school] boards."

Detroit has turned so friendly to reform that the city's school board last May approved seven new charters. There's said to be a new "charter politics" in town: teachers unions opposed, but preachers in favor.

In California, the Legislature in April passed a bill permitting up to 250 charter schools in the 1998-1999 school year, and 100 more every year afterward. The new legislation, removing all sorts of impediments unions and professional education groups seek to impose, now ties California with Michigan for the nation's strongest charter school law, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform.

None of this means charter schools, financed by taxpayer funds but independent of central school administration, are welcomed everywhere.

Only a dozen or so states -- Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida and Pennsylvania among them -- make it relatively easy to start charters. Many states limit the numbers of charters, oblige sponsors to get the blessing of the local school board, or impose extensive regulations.

And the more charters spread -- the country now has close to 800, serving some 150,000 students -- the more dust they stir up. Take Washington, where 19 charter schools are now open and many more are in the works. Three principals and some 100 teachers have quit the public schools to work for charters. Critics are saying it's wrong for the public school system to have to compete with charters for personnel and dollars.

Competition, though, is precisely what the public schools have lacked for so long. Why would thousands of parents, as in Washington, think of dispatching their children to charters, often cramped into temporary space, lacking the standard playing fields, gymnasiums auditoriums? Precisely because they think the scrappy upstart educators behind the charters will provide more personalized, dedicated education for their kids.

Smallness, indeed, is the key, argue three development consultants -- Michael Garber, R. John Anderson and Thomas DiGiovanna -- in a just-published monograph titled "Scale & Care: Charter Schools and New Urbanism."

They contend that the growth of schools with enormous attendance, combined with impersonal, bureaucratized central control, has alienated the children, families and even the communities. The number of schools in the nation has plummeted 68 percent since 1930, even as the K-12 population has grown 64 percent.

It's been a tragic mistake, the team argues, to apply the business world's mass production/distribution process to school governance and construction. Smaller-scale neighborhood schools provide a learning environment in which students are known by name, are more accountable, participate more in class and extracurricular activities.

The pedestrian friendly, old-town environments of the New Urbanist movement could mesh well with the charter school movement, suggest Mr. Garber, Mr. Anderson and Mr. DiGiovanna. Charter schools' inability to secure affordable, safe, quality facilities has been their biggest problem. New Urbanist design for neighborhoods could place school facilities within or close to libraries, playgrounds, public meeting space and restaurants.

That way, if a charter closes, the space is easily adapted for other neighborhood needs. And some charters will close because they can't attract enough students, because of mismanagement, or because they fail to meet student fTC performance objectives.

One is left with a gnawing doubt, though: Will charters, as teachers unions and school boards routinely argue, in fact, harm the public schools?

Not so, argues Harvard economics professor Caroline Hoxby. She found that in regions where parents have more choice, through charters or parochial schools, there's a small but significant increase in the reading and math scores of children in the regular public schools.

Americans instinctively support open competition. It works in business. With contracting out, it helps control government service costs. Now we're finding it works in education, too.

Neil Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/31/98

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