education, charter school
Mike Derer/AP
Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits 6th-grade students at North Star Academy, a public
charter school in Newark, N.J.

Can More Efficient Charter Schools Improve Education Altogether?

August 23, 2010 06:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
The charter school movement is threatened by the failures of a few, but improvements could have implications for education across the United States, some officials contend.

Public Schools Need More Involvement

The Obama administration has sent a message that charter schools are intrinsic to the overall health of American education, Sam Dillon wrote for The New York Times in 2009. In light of this, Education Secretary Arne Duncan alerted charter school advocates to a serious problem: Poorly run charter schools can threaten the entire movement.

“The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate operators to exist,” Duncan told the audience at the National Charter School Conference in Washington, D.C., last year, according to a U.S. Department of Education press release. “Charter authorizers need to do a better job of holding schools accountable—or people will, by leaving.”
Charter schools face barriers to growth, which the Obama administration plans to address, including state “caps, or limits, on the number of charter schools allowed,” according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Funding is also a problem, as “many states provide significantly less than full funding to public charter schools.”

Such issues are influenced by an ongoing conflict between teachers’ unions and charter schools.

According to Education Week, conservatives were originally against the idea of charter schools, but now “the positions are reversed: Conservatives largely embrace charters, while teachers’ unions are mostly opposed.”

Background: What are charter schools and how do they function?

What is a charter school?

The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Web site outlines the basic concept of a charter school, and the typical motivations for establishing one.

Charter schools are not subject to most of the regulations applicable to standard public schools. Charter schools are nonsectarian and public, but each has its own “charter,” or contract, that addresses the school’s unique goals, assessment methods and student body.

How are charter schools funded?

Funding is negotiated as part of the contract with a “sponsor,” typically a school board at the local or state level, according to the Charter Schools Web site. Most charters last three to five years, and may be renewed by the organization granting the charter at the end of the contract.

Charters are often based on enrollment, typically at a rate per pupil that is less than the per-pupil allocation of other public schools, says PBS. Many charter schools supplement funding through grants and donations.

Charter schools are held “accountable to their sponsor” for the academic achievements of the students, and must abide by the contract, the Charter Schools site explains. In return, charter schools are permitted a level of independence beyond that of traditional schools.

Who typically founds a charter school?

The Charter Schools Web site describes charter schools founders as fitting into three different groups: “grassroots organizations of parents, teachers and community members; entrepreneurs; or existing schools converting to charter status.”

Most often, these groups cite one of three reasons for creating a charter school: to fulfill “an educational vision,” to have increased autonomy, or to accommodate “a special population.”

How are charter schools created?

Each state has its own specific regulations for establishing a charter school, but there are “common stages” to the process no matter where the school is being set up, according to the Charter Schools Web site.

The stages usually include: an exploration phase, during which the community’s “readiness for a charter school” and reasons for establishment are assessed; the preparation of an application, which culminates with charter approval; a “pre-operations” phase to actually begin “developing the school” once the charter has been accepted; and finally opening the school and dealing with “unforeseen issues.”

Historical Context: The history of charter schools

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Dr. Ray Budde coined the educational use of the word “charter.” But Budde intended to spur a restructuring of the public school system, not for charter schools to become separate entities. He wanted public school teachers to have more responsibility and higher accountability, but did not agree with charter schools becoming “an alternative to public education.”

According to an article by Ted Kolderie published by The Center for Education Reform, Budde thought that public school districts’ power structures needed altering. He envisioned “a two-level form in which groups of teachers would receive educational charters directly from the school board.” He had a unique ability to see the limitations, “the essentially conservatism and defensiveness of, all organizations,” Kolderie asserts.

Budde's idea “dealt with existing schools,” and would later be called a “contract district” or “all-charter district.” The idea of starting new schools, today's version of charter schools, was actually initiated by Albert Shanker.

In March 1988, Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave an address in Washington in which he proposed creating charter schools, “publicly funded institutions that would be given greater flexibility to experiment with new ways of educating students,” according to Education Week.

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