(September 2001) As teachers look to improve student achievement and parents struggle with a choice between public and private education, more and more of them are turning to charter schools. But while the decade-old charter movement is making headway in its efforts to shake up public education, the implications for student progress remain unclear.

"Charter schools are a new kind of public school," says A Study of Charter School Accountability, one of several recent studies on the subject funded by the U.S. Department of Education. According to the department, charters are semi-independent schools that are open to all but operate free of some of the rules that govern traditional public schools. Thirty-six states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have enacted charter school laws, up from just two states in 1993.


Racial and Ethnic Composition of U.S. Public Schools

Racial and Ethnic Composition of U.S. Public Schools

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, The State of Charter Schools 2000, accessed online at www.ed.gov/pubs/charter4thyear/c.html#2 on July 16, 2001.


Policy analyst Todd Ziebarth of the Education Commission of the States believes charters are catching on for two reasons: parents' demand for more choices and political support for education reform.

Charter schools offer parents an alternative to private and traditional public schools. Because charter school founders, whom Ziebarth described as "people with good ideas and some business background," are entrepreneurs and not bureaucrats — they find their own facilities, design their own curriculum, and hire their own teachers — charter schools are known for being able to implement new teaching methods and adjust curricula quickly. And charters frequently offer innovations such as Montessori practices, language immersion programs, and small "academies" where students stay with the same teachers for years.

Schools must show progress to keep their charters, accountability that education reformers in Congress like. Beginning with a $6 million investment in 1995, Congress has continued to fund grants for school start-ups and other costs. The Public Charter Schools Program received $190 million for 2001. Support for the program is bipartisan, without the rancor attached to vouchers.

Findings

While detailed analysis of student achievement is a few years away, some findings on the charter trend appear in the Department of Education's The State of Charter Schools 2000:

  • Charter schools are smaller than traditional schools. In 1998-1999, charters had a median enrollment of 137 students, compared with 475 for all public schools.
  • Charter schools are organized differently. About 10 percent of charters are a combined middle school/high school, while 16 percent span the elementary and middle grades. Another 8 percent operate as K-12 schools, enrolling children of any grade. Such practices are rare in traditional school districts.
  • Charter schools are more popular with parents. In Arizona, a state with a strong charter movement, 66 percent of parents gave their child's charter school an A or A+ grade, says a recent Goldwater Institute survey. Only 37 percent of parents in traditional schools held such views.
  • Charter schools attract a more diverse student body than traditional schools. (See figure above.) "This is a finding that has surprised people," Ziebarth said, since most experts believed charters would have most appeal to whites leery of their neighborhood public schools. One reason for the diversity may be charters' popularity in major cities. Nearly 10 percent of Washington, D.C., students attend charter schools, said Frederick Hess, a University of Virginia professor and author of School Choice in the Real World. Parents in big cities are interested in safe, small learning environments, he said.

But do charter schools work? So far, results are inconclusive. In Arizona, the Goldwater Institute found that students who had spent two to three years at charters had larger reading gains than public school students. Yet in the same study, the institute found no clear advantage in math performance. A study in Michigan found little correlation between charter school attendance and academic achievement. Most states require charter school students to take the same new high-stakes exams required of other students, so direct comparisons between schools will be possible eventually.

Nonetheless, by offering new services and programs, charters do provide competition for traditional public schools, a factor that, by itself, may promote change. "Public schools tend to mimic the most popular [charter] services," Hess said. As a result, he thinks, both traditional education and charter schools may benefit.


Charles Dervarics is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


For More Information

U.S. Department of Education, A Study of Charter School Accountability (accessed at www.ed.gov on July 19, 2001).

U.S. Department of Education-sponsored website on charter schools: www.uscharterschools.org.

Education Commission of the States, "School Choice: State Actions," ECS StateNote, February 2001 (accessed at www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/13/75/1375.htm on July 19, 2001).