The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
If you took all the fools out of the legislature, it wouldn't be a representative body any more ...  ...Texas state senator Carl Parker.
Commentary of the Day - March 27, 2000: Charter Schools - the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:
The charter school movement in the United States seems to have taken off like wildfire.  As the graph shows, in the short span of seven years  the number of charter schools has grown from a mere handful to more than 1600 nationwide.

(Data from the The State of Charter Schools - 2000, U.S. Dept. of Education.)

In most states the education codes that govern the operation of public schools run to thousands of pages.  The education codes impact almost every area of school operation.  Charter schools, in contrast, have been freed from many of these regulations.  Instead, they operate under charters that have been granted by public supervisory bodies.  Charter schools are granted a high degree of autonomy in how they operate, but in return they are expected to be more accountable for their educational outcomes than ordinary public schools.  Here in California charters must be renewed every five years, and are subject to revocation if educational objectives are not met.

Charter schools usually are formed by coalitions of parents and teachers who have a particular vision of what education should be for the children in their care.  Some charter schools, however, have been developed for special purposes by community groups, government agencies, or institutions of higher education.  For example, some small charter schools have been formed under the auspices of probation departments to work with juvenile offenders in settings that allow for greater discipline than would be possible in a typical public school.

Somewhat surprisingly, the political support for charter schools has been strongly bipartisan.  Both Republicans and Democrats have jumped on the bandwagon.  The Clinton administration is providing more than $24 million in U.S. Department of Education grants for fiscal year 2000 to help new charter schools get started, and Al Gore is calling for tripling the number of new charters.  Likewise, George W. Bush has made charter schools one of the highlights of his education reforms in Texas.  There are, perhaps, a few reasons for the strong political support for charters.  First, politicians know that many parents are fed up with the poor performance of public schools.  Second, those politicians who specialize in education matters know that it would take decades to undo the mass of rules and regulations that now hamstring the operation of many public school systems.  Thus, charter schools offer a quick fix.  They provide an opportunity to work around a problem that can't be solved easily.  Third, charter schools represent a compromise between those on the right who support school choice through private school vouchers, and those on the left who feel that vouchers would destroy the public school system.  Charter schools offer parents choices for their children that they would not have in traditional public schools, but at the same time these schools are funded and supervised (at least to some extent) by public agencies.

Clearly, the high degree of autonomy is a positive feature.  Charter school administrators frequently can effect fiscal efficiencies that would not be possible in traditional public schools.  For example, some states free charter schools from collective bargaining requirements, thus in some areas teacher unions have been vocal opponents of charter schools.  In some states, Texas is an example, the average pay for teachers in charter schools is substantially lower than for teachers in the regular public schools.  However, here in California the starting salaries for charter school teachers are comparable to other public school teachers.  According to a 1997 SRI study the average starting salary for a charter school teacher was $27,200 vs $25,500 for the starting public school teacher.  (In the Irascible Professor's opinion both of those numbers are far too low to attract highly qualified teachers.)

Likewise, the possibility of implementing a consistent, coherent educational philosophy with a high level of parental involvement is another positive feature of many charter schools.  However, this also can be a negative feature if the group operating the school chooses an extreme approach that ignores entirely the research results that have been accumulated over the years about the effectiveness of various pedagogical techniques.  For example, slavish adherence to pedagogies that emphasize rote memorization are just as likely to produce educational disasters as are pedagogies that focus on building self esteem to the exclusion of learning the fundamentals.

Charter schools are not necessarily a panacea for all that ails public education.  According to David DeSchryver, research director for the conservatively oriented Center for Education Reform, about 4% of charter school fail within a few years after opening.  Generally, the reasons for failure include underfunding, poor fiscal management, and a lack of a consistent educational vision.  Another weakness in the charter schools movement is the lack of academic accountability.  Most enabling legislation for charter schools includes standards for academic accountability, but as pointed out in the SRI Study, most oversight agencies are more concerned with fiscal accountability than with academic accountability - at least on an ongoing basis.  Here in California, where charters must be reviewed every five years, one presumes that academic performance standards will be included in the review.  However, the children of an academically ineffective charter school could be placed at a serious disadvantage in the interim.

Because they are publicly funded but operate with relatively weak public oversight, charter schools at times have been used to perpetrate a variety of fraudulent schemes.  Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose in their recent book on George W. Bush (Shrub, Random House, 2000) note the case of the Emma L. Harrison charter school in Waco, Texas.  According to Ivins and Dubose, the charter for this school was granted to a former postal employee who had no previous experience in education.  The school served about two hundred mostly minority students in grades K through 9 with a staff of seventeen teachers.  Within a short time after opening it was clear that the school was in trouble.  Checks written to both the teachers and local vendors began to bounce, and by the time the school was closed by the Texas Education Agency it was more than $400,000 in debt.  Worse yet, only 11 of 104 students from Emma L. Harrison who took the required Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test were able to pass it.

Here in California the State Controller, Kathleen Connell, has been investigating the now closed CATO II School of Reason that was granted a charter by the Apple Valley Unified School District.  This particular "school" was started by a for-profit group that basically signed up some 40 private schools, including some religious schools, that were converted into charter school sites.  Under this scheme these private schools received both state funds and tuition paid directly to them by parents.  This was a direct violation of California laws, which prohibit the conversion of private schools to charter schools.  It also was a direct violation of both state and federal laws that prohibit the use of public funds to support religious schools.  By the time CATO's operation had been shut down more than $5 million in state funds had been allocated to this scam.  The Apple Valley School District froze $3.5 million of that $5 million before it could be spent by CATO, and has volunteered to return that amount to the state treasury.  However, Ms. Connell would like the full $5 million back.  Thus, taxpayers in the Apple Valley School District may find themselves out $1.5 million.

Some charter schools also appear to have been set up to obtain public funds to support home schooling.  The SRI report notes that "29% of the (California) charter schools employed home-based learning with the parent as the primary instructor".  In California parents have the option of home schooling their children.  However, it is not at all clear that the legislature wished to provide public funding for this activity through the rubric of charter schools.

So what is the bottom line here?  In the Irascible Professor's opinion a charter school may well be a good option for a parent who has a child who is not receiving a good education in the public schools.  However, he has some advice for anyone considering moving his or her child to a charter school, or for any parents who may be thinking about establishing a charter school.  First, check out the management of the school thoroughly.  Make sure that the administrator has the necessary background to provide sound fiscal management.  Second, look at the educational background of the administrator and his or her management team.  Make sure that they have the skills to make sound judgments about curriculum and program.  Third, look for schools that provide for active parental involvement in all areas of the school's operation.

Next, look carefully at the educational program and philosophy.  Look for programs that have high standards and expectations for students in a supportive environment.  Good programs encourage individual achievement while, at the same time, providing reasonable opportunities for teamwork and collaborative efforts.  Look for programs where there is a good balance between the development of skills and the development of the intellect.  Avoid programs that rely too heavily either on rote memorization or open-ended, unstructured activities.  Also, avoid programs that depend too heavily on distance learning and home study.  Students need to develop socially as well as intellectually.  Even if you live in a remote area where transportation is difficult, make sure that the school sponsors field trips or athletic events that allow the students to get to know each other on a personal basis.

Finally, be aware that you need to hold the school accountable for the educational development of your child.  Be ready to vote with your feet if it looks like your son or daughter is not being challenged and is not learning at grade level.

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©2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.