An Examination of the Effectiveness of the Charter School Concept to Date
The nation's public schools are struggling to meet the challenges presented by the No Child Left Behind mandates, and charter schools have been suggested as one approach that holds the promise of providing public schools with the tools they need to succeed. According to one authority, "The Charter School concept has the potential to utterly transform public education" (n.p.). Unfortunately, this potential has not been realized to any appreciable degree in many such charter schools to date (Schmerler, 2002). To this end, this paper will provide a review of the relevant and peer-reviewed literature to determine how well charter schools are actually serving and meeting the needs of urban students of color. A comparison of the performance of the charter schools with the performance of public schools in educating students of color will be followed by an examination of the opportunities and barriers that exist to implementing best practices in a given charter school; a summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. In sum, a charter school provides a framework in which a group of teachers, parents, or other stakeholders with comparable interests and views about education to organize and operate a school; the authorizing governmental body that grants charters can be a local school district, by the state, or by the national government (Anderson & Wohlstetter, 1994). Since the original charter school legislation was enacted in 1991, there has been a growing amount of interest generated by the possibilities inherent in this network of more autonomous public schools (Anderson & Wohlstetter, 1994). According to Ferraiolo, Hess, Maranto, and Milliman (2004), as of January 2003, there were approximately 2,700 charter schools operating in 36 states and the District of Columbia, providing services to more than 684,000 students; further, 30 states already had charter schools in operation as of September 1999. A survey completed by the Public Agenda Foundation that same year, though, showed that the majority of Americans had only the vaguest concept of what the term charter school meant (Brouillette, 2002). The charter school movement is based on the fundamental tenets that schools should be accountable to their stakeholders and open to any student wanting to attend; the movement has attracted a number of proponents as well (Boyd & Nathan, 2003). For example, according to Connecticut Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman: "Competition from charter schools is the best way to motivate the ossified bureaucracies governing too many public schools. This grass-roots revolution seeks to reconnect public education with our most basic values: ingenuity, responsibility, and accountability"; likewise, an Arizona official called charter schools "the most important thing happening in public education" (Finn, Mann & Vanourek, 2000, p. 13). These authors define a charter school as "a new species, a hybrid, with important similarities to traditional public schools, some of the prized attributes of private schools -- and crucial differences from both. According to Heise and Ryan (2002), a charter school is some type of combination of public and private schools; they are authorized by state statutes, the schools are publicly funded, tuition-free, nonsectarian schools that operate pursuant to a contract between the school and the chartering agency, which is the local school board, a state agency, or a state-designated agency.
Charter schools can assume a number of incarnations as well; for example, charter schools can be formed by creating new schools, or by converting public or private schools; further, they can be opened and operated by any number of groups, including teachers, parents, and private corporations, although some states require that the charter school creators be a nonprofit group (Heise & Ryan, 2002). Charter schools also enjoy exemption from compliance with various regulations relating to such issues as teacher hiring, curriculum, calendar, and length of school day; in exchange for these exemptions, charter schools are strictly accountable for their performance (Heise & Ryan, 2002).
Because they are public schools, charter schools are by definition required to be open to any student who wants to attend there without regard to race, religion, or academic ability; in addition, charter schools are financed with tax dollars, meaning there is no tuition charged and these schools are also accountable for its results to an authoritative public body such as a state or local school board for their continued existence as well as to those who enroll (and teach) in them (Finn et al., 2000).
Charter schools are also differentiated from standard-issue public schools; the majority of charter schools to date have been distinguished by five key features:
1. They can be created by almost anyone;
2. They are exempt from most state and local regulations, essentially autonomous in their operations;
3. They are attended by students whose families choose them;
4. They are staffed by educators who are also there by choice;
5. They can be closed if they do not produce satisfactory educational outcomes (Finn et al., 2000, p. 15).
These considerations make charter schools an attractive alternative for many low-income families whose children have been restricted to under-performing urban schools, but the ability to choose which school a child will attend carries with it an enormous number of controversial issues. For example, suburbanites, by and large, are not wild about school choice, either public or private. Suburban parents have been shown to be satisfied with the public schools their children attend by and large, and these parents naturally want to protect both the physical and the financial sanctity of these schools (Heise & Ryan, 2002). These suburban parents view school choice as a threat because it creates the generally unwelcome possibility that "outsiders" (particularly marginalized urban students) will then be able to attend suburban schools at the expense of local taxpayers; in addition, school choice initiatives also raise the possibility that some locally raised revenues will exit local schools as students leave to attend either private schools or public schools outside of their residential districts (Heise & Ryan, 2002). As a result, critics of charter schools suggest that to the extent that choice may threaten the exclusivity and superiority of suburban schools, it may also threaten suburban housing values, which are linked to the quality of neighborhood schools (Fischel, 2001; Bogart & Cromwell, 2000). This point is also made by Heise and Ryan (2002), who note that, "Like suburban parents, suburban homeowners without children thus have a strong, self-interested reason to be wary of school choice" (p. 2043). In particular, the advocates of charter schools suggest that choice is a remedy for the wide range of problems currently confronting the nation's public schools while critics suggest that it could just as well destroy public education in the process (Heise & Ryan, 2002). In fact, the primary constraint facing almost all charter initiatives is start-up funding; charter school legislation typically provides a charter school with some portion of the district's per-pupil expenditure once the school is operating but does not provide much in the way of start-up funds (Harrington-Luecker, 1997). Not surprisingly, then, the impact of charter schools to date on minorities and low-income students has been more pronounced than on their mainstream counterparts, and these effects -- both positive and negative -- are discussed further below.
Impact of Charter Schools on Low-Income and Minority Students. A growing number of school reform advocates are troubled by racially disparate educational outcomes, and others focused on improving quality and raising education standards overall (Barnes, 1997). When compared with district public schools, data from state and federal studies shows that charter schools typically enroll similar percentages of white and minority students, in some cases even a greater percentage of minorities; however, these reports must be viewed with a statistical grain of salt. According to Lin (2001), these reports can be highly skewed by failing to account for the ethnic / socioeconomic concentration of students in certain schools and districts. "Schools serve a relatively small geographic area, not an entire state," she says (p. 166). When the demographics of a school are compared with the state as a whole, the charter school may appear to be enrolling a larger percentage of minority children than the state average; a more accurate comparison matches charter schools with their surrounding public school district. "When such comparisons are made," Lin says, "researchers have found substantial discrepancies in the socioeconomic and racial background of enrolled students" (p. 166). Underperforming schools represent an enormous challenge for educators, of course, but this is one of the reasons the charter school alternative represents such a good deal for politicians. The primary concept behind charter schools is to provide educators with a greater degree of flexibility in operating their schools in exchange for greater accountability for performance; this accountability includes the threat of closure if a school fails to perform adequately (Finn & Manno, 1998). For example, Finn and Manno (1998) point out that, "A charter school is an independent public school freed from most bureaucratic hassles in return for producing…