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Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Developed from a need within public education for choice and innovation, a “charter school is an autonomous, publicly funded entity that operates on the basis of a contract between the group that organizes the school and a sponsor, usually the local school district or state education agency” (Fusarelli 21). Designed to help students who have trouble in public schools as a second option, charter schools are not the same as private schools. They are funded by the government and can deny enrollment of students only if the maximum capacity for the school has been reached. Charter schools have existed for over ten years now, which means a substantial amount of charter school studies and results have been developed to analyze the impact of charter schools on education. The intent of this essay is to further investigate the impacts of charter schools on education and to weigh supporting arguments of the charter school movement against opposing arguments.
Charter school legislation was first passed as another reform effort for public schools based on the “belief in the power of a local control—the idea that those closest to the locus of educational activity (i.e., parents, teachers, building administrators) are in the best position to make critical decisions about teaching and learning” (McGree 2). This government issued legislation proposes complete autonomy to schools, freeing them from the regulation of distant school boards who were not directly involved with the activities of school. Regulation would instead be loosely imposed by parents and teachers who were heavily involved in the education of the students. However, Michael Fullan argues that the charter school movement is but another one of the school reform efforts of the last two decades which have failed because they have been imposed by the government without any actual input from those involved in the process of education (qtd. in Garcia and Garcia 34). This argument is supported by the amount of money funded to charter schools by legislators who “ignore the success of public schools in the last 25 years and who are simultaneously reluctant to allocate adequate funds to allow schools the opportunity to be successful” (Garcia and Garcia 34). In seeking reform for education, opponents argue that legislators created a new sect of education which takes resources from public education rather than implementing similar strategies within the preexisting public school system.
Proponents of charter schools argue that they provide a greater level of autonomy for the teachers and administrators. Autonomy within the schools system is highly valued by these individuals. It allows them the freedom to experiment with new teaching methods and systems of running schools. Charter schools, “designed to allow freedom from the constraints imposed by local school districts…have greater flexibility to select specific models of operation” (Stewart 778). Charter schools are free from regulations enforced by any agency other than the school’s sponsor, and therefore have the freedom to try new things. To compensate for the elevated autonomy, charter schools are held highly accountable for the achievement of their students, proponents claim (Browning 17). Higher accountability faced by charter schools is intended to raise their achievement standards and justify establishing separate schools. However, the problem lies in the fact that the school system is not centralized, and “without a centralized method of assessment it is difficult to compare the academic performance of charter schools and district public schools” (Browning 17). Though the charter schools are held accountable, there is not a specific standard to which the government can hold them.
The task of meeting standards has proven to be a major focus of research on charter schools. Preliminary studies conducted in Michigan suggest that charter schools are improving student performance on state wide assessment tests, and “nearly half of all charter schools in Michigan doubled or tripled the number of students receiving satisfactory scores in one or more subject areas on a statewide assessment exam” (Fusarelli 22). Charter schools, given autonomy and freedom over curricula, have been found to be “educationally diverse and remarkable imaginative in their approaches” (Stewart 779). However, a study conducted in Minnesota in 1999 showed that 40 percent of charter school students met the state’s graduation requirements and only 43 percent met the state’s reading standards (Berger 100). This could be associated with “the lack of ‘definitive research demonstrating the effectiveness of [charter] schools’” (Peebles 5). Though a few charter schools have been exceptionally successful, Berger and Cookson argue that all charter schools must strive for student achievement, no matter how diverse their other missions might be (101).
Charter schools provide not only another option for families, but also a site in which to conduct educational method experiments. Public schools seek innovation through many reform efforts, and proponents argue that charter schools “are meant to break the mold” (Berger 102). Charter schools implement creative teaching methods and provide educational models. Stewart comments, “By nature, the best of educational theory and philosophy is only valuable if it can be translated into practice” (781). Charter schools provide the grounds for putting theories and philosophies to practice, and hope to share these innovations with public schools. However, very little evidence exists to show innovation is taking place within charter schools. In fact, “charter schools are remarkably similar to public schools. While many schools have unique ideas highlighted in their charters, most schools are unable to implement them” (Browning 20). Charter schools have not supported their claim to improve education. Berger and Cookson argue that this is caused by traditional parents who are not concerned with experimentation in education, an overestimate of the amount of teachers who are innovative, and standardized testing (103). They oppose legitimacy of the charter school movement, reasoning that “If the demand for schooling is traditional, then the supply of schools will also be traditional” (103). Charter schools attempt to create a new type of education, which, in theory, would require a new type of student- one that does not yet exist.
Though proponents argue that charter schools provide creativity within their schools and inspire the same of public schools, they also argue that charter schools provide competition for public districts, who are “developing new options for ‘customers’ who might otherwise defect to charter schools” (Finn 205). Public schools respond to charter schools by improving their programs and providing options for families who want to move their children to charter schools. Change brought on by competition, however, is random. Browning explains that many educators do not wish to compete with charter schools, which are allowed to do many things public schools cannot, and many public schools educators “do not value what [charter schools] have to offer, and simply do not want to compete in an arena where they believe charter schools have an unfair advantage” (19). Charter schools claim to provide competition for public schools, but fail to recognize the disparity between the schools. This has caused public school educators to adopt negative attitudes towards charter schools. If public school educators cannot respect the work of charter schools, they will not see a need to emulate their actions. Also, public and charter schools have no organized way of sharing any ideas, whether for the purposes of innovation or competition. They do not share their successes and failures, and therefore remain isolated (Berger 108).
One issue in question regarding charter schools is for what type of students they mean to provide better possibilities. In 1995, McGree writes “Although charter schools have often been touted as a choice strategy to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, the vast majority of existing schools do not target low-achieving student populations” (6). Some claim that charter schools resegregate schools, as quoted by a school board president: “Separation by choice encourages segregation and isolation… The haves will have choice, the have nots won’t even realize there is a choice” (Garcia 35). Some charter schools, however, are created specifically to meet the needs of at risk students, as at least half of the charter schools in Texas were created. Yet, these schools in Texas “have proportionally fewer special education and limited English proficient students” (Fusarelli 21). Peebles argues that too many at-risk and minority students are being placed into charter schools, which “has in some cases created schools that are more deeply segregated than the schools from which students exited” (3).
As with public schools, financial issues play a large role in the success or failure of charter schools. Proponents like McGree claim that “Charter schools require little or no additional money and few resources to implement or sustain….they are viewed as relatively cost-free” (2). As funding is a substantial problem for the public school system, operating a low-cost school is, according to proponents, a great advantage of charter schools. Financial problems, however, are the cause of failure for most charter schools. For example, “Lack of start-up funding, inadequate facilities, and inadequate operating funds were cited as significant barriers to the creation and expansion of charter schools” (Fusarelli 23). Garcia and Garcia discuss this, asking, “If charter schools don’t cost more than regular schools and more money isn’t the answer to the problems facing America’s public schools, why is lack of funding one of the early problems facing charter schools? (35). Proponents of charter schools cite low-costs as a catalyst of success, while opponents find that problems with poor funding repeatedly cause them to close.
One topic that proponents of charter schools do not approach is alternative solutions to improving the existing public schools system. Opponents, though against the system of charter schools, note examples of successful charter schools. Browning remarks that “Many individual schools are thriving: they have been granted the power to make changes in the educational system and are doing it successfully…. Individual units of success, however, do not always add up to what can be considered systematic success” (22). Garcia and Garcia argue that successful schools such as these can serve as complements to public schools, because they “could pilot new teaching strategies, curriculum offerings, and organizational structures where best practices can be studied, validated, and replicated in traditional schools” (36). Berger also observes that “There are some charter schools that have done exceptionally well, as the data from the Center from Educational Reform indicates, but from a systematic point of view there is little to lead us to believe that charter schools are likely to become, as a group, beacons of hope for those who believe that deregulation and competition inevitably lead to higher student achievement” (101). Proponents of charter schools, however, argue that any improvements made in the public schools system by charter schools is intended, as this is stated as a goal. Stewart concludes, “…charter schools offer not only the opportunity to model excellence but also may provide the fuel, direction, and training to extend those models to provide pervasive educational change” (784). The charter school movement is still developing, and research studies continue to be conducted on the issue. Though cases have been made for charter schools and against them, proponents and opponents do share one opinion: whether directly or indirectly, charter schools have a positive effect on public school systems.
Berger, Kristina, and Peter W. Cookson, Jr. Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of
Hope and Despair. Colorado: Westview P, 2002.
Browning, Melissa. “A Critical Analysis of Charter Schools.” Equity and Excellence in
Education 33.2 (2000): 16-23.
Finn, Chester E. Jr., Bruno V. Manno, and Gregg Vanourek. Charter Schools in Action. New
Jersey: Princeton UP, 2000.
Fusarelli, Lance D. “Charter Schools: Implications for Teachers and Administrators.” The
Clearing House 76 (2002): 20-24.
Garcia, George F., and Mary Garcia. “Charter Schools—Another Top-Down Innovation.”
Educational Researcher 25.8 (1996): 34-36.
McGree, Kathleen M. “Charter Schools: Early Learnings.” Insights… on Education Policy and
Practice 5 (1995) 10 October 2004 *lt;http://www.sedl.org/policy/insights/charter9507
Peebles, Lucretia. “Charter School Equity Issues: Focus on Minority and At-Risk Students.”
Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (November 2000): 1-8.
Stewart, Barbara L. “Charter Schools: Opportunities to Extend Educational Models, a Positive
View.” Education 122.4 (2002): 777- 84.
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