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The Charter School Debate

THE CHARTER SCHOOL DEBATE: WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The "charter" establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school's mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school's contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor-- usually a state or local school board-- to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability. They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them1.

They have become one of the most well-known and publicized education reforms of the late 20th century. Spurred from a growing dissatisfaction with public education, charter schools have grown exponentially over the past several years2.  Charter schools have continued to be a hotly debated issue in the current arena of education. Advocates of charters argue that they create an alternative choice for parents and will increase the quality education for all children, while opponents challenge that charters pull resources and energy away from the standard public schools which will lead to an overall decrease in our nation's education quality.
 
History of the Charter School Movement

In 1983, the publication of A Nation at Risk drew attention to how U.S. children were being educated and at what quality. The A Nation at Risk report, published by the Department of Education, cited statistics to demonstrate that the education of children in the United States was at a level of mediocrity and therefore, could not compete in a competitive global market. This report had a major impact on society’s opinion of its education, stating that 13 percent of 17-year olds were functionally illiterate, high school graduates had only one-third as much instruction in math compared to students in other countries, and achievement tests scores are on the decline. A Nation at Risk advocated more focus on academic instruction in schools and specifically encouraged states and local school districts to raise basic standards and to increase school accountability3.

Around the same time, corporate America began to pay attention to what was occurring in public education. This in part was due to another report, Action for Excellence, published in 1983, which called for a partnership between the business community and public education4.  The report, published by the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth and stated, “If the business community gets more involved both in the design and the delivery of education, we are going to become more competitive as an economy”5. Businesses became concerned with the future of their workforce and concluded, “for the first time in a generation, there will probably be, in several urban locations, an absolute shortage of labor supply for entry level positions”6.  The business community banded together and began to apply management practices to school administration. Programs such as ‘adopt-a-school’ and site-based management practices were implemented at the state and local levels. A non-profit group, New American Schools Development Corporation was formed to design model schools which would incorporate the best practices of the business community as an attempt to reform public education7.  The onset of these initiatives signaled the beginning of the school choice and privatization movement which continues today.

In 1991, Minnesota was the first state to pass a law specifically implementing charter schools. Since then, 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of charter school law in attempts to improve student achievement and the overall quality of public education.  As of September, 2006, there are 3,977 charter schools (a rise of 11% from the same period in 2005) and 1.15 million charter school students across the nation8.

Advocates v. Challengers: The Arguments Surrounding Charters
Advocates for charter schools believe that having options or choice in public education will create competition between schools and thereby increase the quality of public education overall. Proponents of charter schools also believe that charters have more accountability than regular public schools and allow more room for innovation and creativity9.  Charter school advocates believe that creating more choices will empower parents and provide quality education opportunities for those students who need it the most.
 

Opponents of charters believe that charters will not increase overall quality of education. They argue that charters “cream” the best students from regular public schools and thereby reduce the overall quality of public education rather than increase it. Challengers of charters worry that resources are pulled away from regular public schools, and the children who choose to stay in regular schools will receive less support and resources. Opponents argue against the assumption that creating competition in public education will increase the quality in schools. Some argue that regular public schools are doing everything they can at the present time and competition won't have any effect.

Are Charter Schools Improving Education?
Assessing the outcomes of charter schools is complex for several reasons. First off, charters are incredibly diverse, and vary by each district, and each state10.  Levels of funding for charters, styles of management, degree of parent involvement, and systems of accountability and oversight vary for each charter school. Thereby, it is impossible to make nationwide generalizations about whether charter schools are doing better or worse than regular public schools. Another challenge with assessment is that student achievement is based on several extraneous factors ranging from family characteristics and socio-economic status to unobservable student behaviors. These extraneous factors play a role in student achievement regardless of the type of school which makes it difficult to establish a causal relationship between charter schools and student achievement.
 

These challenges aside, research has focused on using specific methodologies to test whether student achievement increases due to charter schools. While research has been mixed on whether charters improve public education, educators are learning more and more about what works with charter schools. Charter research continues to become more focused and more informative. However, the charter movement is still too new of an education reform to truly assess the effects on student achievement.

Regardless of the debate surrounding the concerns, successes, and assessment of charters, the charter school movement has changed the face of public education and will continue to do so in the near future.
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2 Center for Education Reform. (2002, September 17). Growth in charter schools reflects increasing demands for choices
3 Spring, J. (2001). The American school: 1642-200 (5th Ed.). New York City: McGraw Hill
4 Spring, J. (2001). The American school: 1642-200 (5th Ed.). New York City: McGraw Hill
5 Spring, J. (2001). The American school: 1642-200 (5th Ed.). New York City: McGraw Hill
6 Jackson, G.B., & Antunez, B. Current and future education reforms.. In Jackson, G.B. Two centuries of american education reform
7 Spring, J. (2001). The American school: 1642-200 (5th Ed.). New York City: McGraw Hill
8 Center for Education Reform (2006, September 19). Charter Schools Number Nearly 4,000 Nationwide
9 Garcia, G & Garcia, M (Nov 1996) Charter Schools: Another Top-down Innovation
Educational Researcher vol. 25(8) pp. 34-36
10 Charter School Achievement Consensus Panel. (May 2006) Key issues in studying charter schools and achievement: A review and suggestion for national guidelines (May 2006)
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