Charter schools scoring

May 04, 2000|By Chester E. Finn, Jr., Brunno V. Manno and Gregg Vanourek

AS COMMUNITIES across the United States celebrate National Charter Schools Week this week, it's worth examining the reaction of the traditional education system to these independent public schools of choice, freed from many bureaucratic rules but accountable for results.

Since the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, the schools have spread faster than anyone expected. About 1,700 of them now enroll nearly 350,000 children in 32 states plus the District of Columbia. President Clinton calls for 3,000 of these schools by 2002.

Politically, charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support. For Democrats, these independent public schools are a concession to school choice yet a bulwark against vouchers while they also afford opportunities for educational innovation and accountability. To the Republicans, charters are a crack in the public school establishment's monopoly, a specimen of deregulation, and a down payment on school choice. To independent voters, they are grass-roots efforts to stem the tide of mediocrity and transcend the tired politics (and tangled jurisprudence) of vouchers. To minorities and city dwellers, they are islands of education hope in a sea of bad schools.

Where is this headed?

While charters remain marginal in most places, catering to malcontents, kids in trouble and idiosyncratic parents, in some places they're looking like the stirrings of a new kind of school system. Nearly one-tenth of the schoolchildren in Washington attend 28 charter schools that didn't exist three years ago. More than 13 percent of Kansas City's children are in charters. And 20 percent of all the public schools in Arizona are charters.

National Urban League President Hugh Price wants to "charterize" all urban schools. Reinventing government guru David Osborne invites us, "Imagine, for a moment, a public education system in which every school is a charter school." Even the mainstream Education Commission of the United States has set forth an all-charter approach to urban school governance.

What will keep that from happening? Our research has revealed four stages in public education's reaction to charter schools: Stop them cold, keep them few and weak, compete with them and embrace them. Most American communities are still stuck in the first two responses.

Maryland exemplifies a state that is in Stage One -- that is, opponents have been able to stop those in the legislature who have been trying to pass a charter school law. But a handful of communities has reached stages three and four.

Five charter schools opened in Lansing, Mich., in recent years and it initially lost 1,000 of its 19,500 students. In response, the system undertook an aggressive marketing plan and drew back about 100 youngsters. But the most striking district reactions go well beyond ads.

Some charter-impacted districts are developing new options for "customers." Douglas County, Colo., created a gifted-and-talented program. Battle Creek, Mich., started two schools in partnership with the for-profit Edison Project in response to three charters that opened in the same year. In Boston, the school district and teachers' union joined in a "pilot schools" program, by which rules and contract provisions can be waived without a school having to "go charter." This led staffers at Fenway Middle College High School to return their new char ter and become a pilot school instead.

An Arizona study suggests that competition from charters has had a positive impact on district schools there. While the mere prospect of charters triggers advertising and public-relations efforts, direct competition from such schools pushes districts to adopt serious reforms such as back-to-basics magnet schools and full-day kindergarten.

A few districts are pursuing reform with the help of charters, using this flexible arrangement to create schools not possible under the usual rules and contract provisions, schools that serve as research and development labs for the system or as part of a broader reform strategy.

School change comes slowly to American communities. But more are joining -- or being obliged to respond to, sometimes grudgingly -- the charter movement. As this movement spreads, more districts will get beyond simple opposition and respond constructively to the fact that they're now part of a competitive education marketplace. We judge that charter schools, despite heir limited market share today, are beginning to affect the K-12 education system as a whole.

Chester E. Finn is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation; Bruno V. Manno is senior program associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation; and Gregg Vanourek is an MBA student at Yale University. Their new book is "Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education" just released by Princeton University Press.

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