The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Despite ambitious aims and hopeful rhetoric, we still know very little about what unfolds inside charter schools."...  ...Bruce Fuller, Inside Charter Schools - The Paradox of Radical Decentralization.

Commentary of the Day - June 3, 2001: Inside Charter Schools - The Paradox of Radical Decentralization - A Review.

As the Irascible Professor noted in a commentary published last year ("Charter Schools, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), the number of charter schools in the United States has been growing at a rapid clip.  The phenomenon is so new - barely a decade old - that very little solid analysis of the movement exists, even though it enjoys widespread support from across the political spectrum.  Inside Charter Schools, edited by Bruce Fuller of U.C., Berkeley and published by Harvard University Press, is hardly an exhaustive study of the charter school movement; but, it does offer a glimpse into the incredible diversity that characterizes these new choices in the educational marketplace.  The book focuses sharply on many of the hard questions about charter schools that have yet to be answered.

Although Inside Charter Schools includes contributions from five U.C., Berkeley scholars (Eric Rofes, Patty Yancey, Luis Huerta and Eric Wexler in addition to Fuller), three U.C.L.A. scholars (Amy Stuart Wells, Jennifer Jellison, and Ash Vasudeva), and a Boston Globe journalist (Kate Zernike); it is a remarkably coherent work.

The heart of the book consists of six case studies of seven very different charter school operations across the country.  Fuller provides an introduction to the case studies with a chapter that attempts to place charter schools in a political context.  As he notes, these institutions occupy a unique position in the educational landscape.  They are publicly funded, yet they often promote the educational vision of a single individual or a small group of parents and/or teachers.  Their charter status frees them from both the constraints imposed by state education codes, and the constraints imposed by union contracts.  Fuller asks if these charter schools can serve the common good that was the original intent of public education, or if they serve relatively narrow "tribal" interests.  This introductory chapter is a bit tedious because Fuller repeats himself a bit too much.  However, the points he makes are important.

The case studies examine two African-American charter schools in Lansing, Michigan, a Latino charter in Oakland, California, a suburban charter school in Massachusetts, a charter high school in a wealthy section of a large (and largely poor) southern California school district, a home schooling charter in the central valley of California, and a rural charter school in Minnesota.  Each of the case studies examines in some detail the reasons for the formation of the individual charter school, the governance and management structure of the school, and to a lesser extent the day-to-day teaching and learning environment in the school.

Dissatisfaction with some feature or features of existing public schools is the only common element in all the case studies.  Parental concerns about discipline and safety played a much larger role in the formation of the inner-city charters in Lansing and Oakland than did curricular issues.  One of the two Lansing charters emphasizes a relatively traditional, didactic curriculum while the other one has adopted an Afro-centric curriculum.  In addition to concerns about safety and discipline the desire to maintain Mexican cultural identity seemed to play a large role in the formation of the Oakland charter.  The driving force behind the formation of the Massachusetts charter was dissatisfaction with a stagnant suburban school district that ignored the needs of some of its students.  Two interrelated elements led to the conversion of the public high school to a charter high school.  One was declining enrollment owing to the loss of the wealthier white students to private schools, and the other was concern over the changing composition of the student body as minority students were bused in from overcrowded schools elsewhere in the district.  The home schooling charter represents an opportunistic alliance between a small rural school district and home schooling parents whose distrust of public schools is driven by either religious fundamentalism or adherence to libertarian philosophy.  The Minnesota charter was started by a cooperative of educators who wanted to reverse the decline in the local schools caused by the exodus of middle-class children following the closing of the Jolly Green Giant facility in LeSeur.  These examples show that the reasons for starting charters are as diverse as the circumstances that teachers and parents find themselves in.

The authors identify some common threads in these disparate situations.  The level of parental support in all cases was high, even though direct parental involvement in the governance and operation of the schools was not always present.  Almost all the charter schools that were studied encountered initial organizational challenges and difficulties with the chartering agency (usually the local school board).  Each of the charters required the leadership of a highly committed key person or a small group of such key people to get the school into operation.  Most of the charters enroll a significantly smaller number of students than their public school counterparts.  This seems to be a major factor in both student and parent satisfaction with the charter school operation regardless of the particular educational vision that was pursued.

Although the level of student and parent satisfaction with their charter schools was quite high, the authors found little hard evidence that students enrolled in the charters actually performed better than students in the neighboring public schools.  Only one of the charters - the traditional African-American charter in Lansing - placed an emphasis on how well its students performed on standardized tests.  The results showed that the charter school students performed significantly better in math but only slightly better in reading than the corresponding public school students.

Fuller views the charter school movement as an experiment in radical decentralization of the educational enterprise.  In his closing chapter, he examines the paradox presented by this radical decentralization.  On one hand parents and teachers find themselves empowered.  They no longer are at the mercy of bureaucratic school boards, intransigent teachers unions, and the confining regulations of education codes.  However, because they focus primarily on local concerns and narrowly homogeneous student populations, charters threaten to Balkanize and tribalize the educational process.  They often ignore the common good to focus on these local concerns.

Fuller, in his closing chapter, raises concerns about the more global issue of the effects of poverty and class distinctions on the educational progress of children.  The Irascible Professor agrees that there is ample evidence to show that children from disadvantaged backgrounds -- on average -- perform at lower levels than children from more advantaged backgrounds.  There are a host of factors that contribute to that difference.  Inadequate public schools staffed with inexperienced, underpaid, and often uncredentialed teachers are a contributing factor.  But, at the same time the public schools for more than a century have been the engine of social mobility in the United States.  It is important to ask another question that was missed in Fuller's book.  Do students who attend  charter schools in poor neighborhoods improve their chances to escape poverty?  It is still much too early to answer that question, but not too early to ask it.

Overall, this book represents an important contribution to the literature on the charter school movement.  It will be of most value to those interested in starting charter schools and to those interested in the policy implications of this movement.  The book is of less value to parents who seek to enroll their children in charters, because it does not focus sharply on the day-to-day implementation of the educational process.
Inside Charter Schools, ISBN 0-674-00325-X is available from Harvard University Press or your favorite bookseller.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.