by Kathleen M. McGree

Why Charter Schools?

Despite nearly a decade of intense reform efforts, few believe the public schools have experienced substantive and lasting improvement. The current system is often portrayed as bureaucratic, outdated, and badly in need of radical restructuring. Aligned with this perspective is a belief in the power of 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. Charter school advocates argue that school personnel, if freed from stifling state and local regulations, would be able to create more innovative and personal learning environments that could better meet the needs of all students.

The appeal of this new educational delivery system is largely based on a common set of beliefs and assumptions about the efficacy of charter schools:

  • Charter schools encourage innovation because they operate as independent and legally autonomous entities. As such, charter schools are in a position to empower educators and parents to make instructional and planning decisions that best meet the needs of students. Charter school personnel not only make these decisions but they are also held legally liable for them. Because the liability rests directly with the charter school, there is no external body limiting or restricting innovation and experimentation.
  • Charter schools are more accountable and focus on results. Because charter schools agree to be held to stricter standards of accountability, they are exempted from all state and local laws with the exception of those related to health, safety, and civil rights. Unlike more traditional schools, charter schools are subject to closure, and personnel must agree to resign if designated student outcomes are not achieved. The focus is on educational results rather than processes or inputs.
  • Charter schools expand public school choices for all, but particularly for students at risk. Charter schools expand educational opportunities for teachers, students, and parents by providing an alternative to traditional public schools. Teachers are afforded the option of using more innovative instructional strategies and participating in school decision-making. Parents have a wider range of educational options for their children and enjoy greater opportunities to participate in school management and planning. Charter schools also seek to increase educational opportunities for at-risk students who have been unsuccessful in traditional school settings and have historically had few alternatives or "real" choices.
  • Charter schools provide new and increased professional opportunities for teachers. In contrast to traditional public schools, charter schools involve teachers directly in all aspects of curriculum development, planning, and management. In exchange for a greater investment in time and energy, teachers gain a greater sense of school pride and ownership in the instructional program.
  • Charter schools require little or no additional money and few resources to implement or sustain. Charter schools are a financially attractive reform strategy for two reasons: 1) they keep public funds within the public system, and 2) they are viewed as relatively cost-free. Moreover, charter schools do not require the creation of a standards board or oversight body and actually reduce the size of administrative bureaucracy at the school level.
  • Charter schools act as a catalyst for improvement throughout the public system. Charter schools have to actively compete with other public (and perhaps private) schools for students. If a charter school is unable to produce results, it risks losing the support of parents and students. Likewise, more traditional public schools are also pressured to compete for students and to respond more effectively to parents and students. In addition, charter schools are likely to promote improvement by serving as models of innovation and best practice.

Translating beliefs and assumptions into practice has never been an easy or smooth process. Charter schools are no exception. Charter school legislation varies tremendously from state to state and the result has been a set of schools that are as different from each other as they are similar. Some charter schools are legally and financially independent while others maintain close ties with their sponsoring districts. Some serve special needs populations (i.e., at-risk students, students with disabilities) while others appeal to more "mainstream" student groups. Together, charter schools encompass a wide variety of instructional programs and organizational models. One thing charter schools do share is a committed group of educators, parents, and community members who want control over the critical educational decisions affecting the lives of their students.

Early Learnings
It is still far too early to tell whether charter schools will provide quality and equitable educational choices and opportunities for all students. But we are starting to move beyond theory and learn something about charter schools in practice. Research findings have emerged from charter school sites in California, Colorado, and Minnesota, providing some clues about the issues charter schools are confronting in planning and implementation. Even with this new information, however, we are only beginning to understand the impact of charter schools on students, teachers, parents, and the public education system as a whole. What we do know is that a number of common issues and challenges have arisen as organizers wrestle with transforming a vision for charter schools into practice.

Although charter schools were initially conceived as legally and financially autonomous institutions, in policy and practice their autonomy varies dramatically. The "strongest" legislation is found in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota, all of which authorize legally independent charter schools (Bierlein & Mulholland, 1994a). Here schools can operate unconstrained by state and local regulations, controlling their own budgets, personnel, curriculum, and instructional strategies. In a few of these states, however, charter schools can and have chosen to seek less autonomy and remain closely connected to their sponsoring district. In states with "weaker" legislation, charter schools must remain legally part of a school district and are often afforded no greater autonomy than traditional public schools.

State laws can influence autonomy in a variety of ways. Provisions for legal status, approval, funding, and exemption from rules all affect charter school autonomy (General Accounting Office, 1995). Moreover, issues of autonomy can significantly impact working relationships between charter schools and their local districts.

Legal status
A charter school's legal status has a tremendous impact on the school's ability to exercise control over educational planning and programs. While a number of state laws automatically grant charter schools legally independent status, other states require charter schools to remain legally tied to a school district. In California, a charter's legal status is subject to negotiation by the school's organizers and the sponsoring district.

Approval and appeals processes
A majority of states require that charter schools seek sponsorship and approval from their local boards of education. Laws in Hawaii, New Mexico, and Massachusetts, however, require sponsorship and initial approval at the state level. A few states require final state board approval after initial approval is granted by a local board. Nearly half the states allow charters to appeal, typically to the state board of education, if they have been rejected at the local level (Bierlein & Mulholland, 1994b). When autonomy is negotiable, the requirement of local approval has allowed districts to use their leverage to push for less autonomous charter schools. In California, for example, it was determined that districts were least supportive of charter schools seeking the most autonomy (Dianda & Corwin, 1994).

In a majority of states, the amount of state and local funding is subject to negotiation between the school and the sponsoring district. When funding is subject to negotiation, monies typically flow through the district to the charter school. In Arizona, Hawaii, Michigan, and Minnesota, funding is set by the state and not subject to negotiation. Here funds are disbursed directly to the charter school, bypassing the district entirely. In instances where funding is negotiable, autonomy can be limited if the district seeks to retain control over funds as a condition of the charter's approval (GAO, 1995).

Rule exemptions
State laws that provide for legally independent charter schools typically provide a "blanket" exemption from all state and local codes (with the exception of health, safety, and civil rights protections). In states that require charter schools to remain legally part of a district, the schools are subject to district rules and must apply for exemptions on a "rule by rule" basis (GAO, 1995). When waivers are required, as in California, districts can and sometimes do exercise control and limit charter school autonomy by denying certain exemptions (Dianda & Corwin, 1994).

Roles and relationships
The processes that ultimately define autonomy, and those that authorize charter schools in particular, have been characterized as "adversarial" and can have a divisive and polarizing effect on relations between charter schools and local districts, particularly when charter schools must seek local approval or work closely with districts to provide services to students. Approval guidelines can promote an "us-versus-them" mentality by requiring charter schools to argue they can offer an alternative and implicitly "superior" educational setting for district students. Moreover, the very demand for charter schools implies dissatisfaction with more traditional schools, which is likely to produce tensions between traditional public school supporters and charter school organizers (Huston et al., 1995). Not surprisingly, charter schools that pose the least threat to the stability of the current system-either by appealing to special needs populations instead of the "mainstream" student base or by seeking less autonomy and control-encounter less district resistance and gain approval more readily (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994; Dianda & Corwin, 1994).

Given this context, the delineation and clarification of roles and responsibilities between charter schools and districts have produced conflicts. In most cases, both legally autonomous and semi-autonomous charter schools continue to rely on their local district for some form of support and services. Since state laws do not outline a formal process for charter schools to interact with their local districts, these schools and districts are in the difficult and unfamiliar position of defining and redefining their relationship.

Issues of transportation and special education have generated the most role ambiguity and conflict. This is particularly true in Minnesota where relationships between charter schools and districts have been labeled "somewhat tentative" and range from neutral to antagonistic (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994, p. 49).

Under Minnesota law, the district is required to provide transportation for students who live in the district and attend a charter school. If a student lives outside the district, the student or parent must provide transportation to the district boundary. These provisions have posed problems for both the charter school and the district. Charter school organizers are frustrated because they are forced to coordinate their calendar and school hours with the district's transportation schedule, thereby restricting the possibility of innovative scheduling. Districts, on the other hand, are frustrated with a general lack of communication about the number and location of students that require transportation to charter schools. Moreover, requests to transport students from all corners of the district boundary have proved costly and time consuming (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994).

Special education
The delivery of special education services also raises a unique set of problems for charter schools and their districts. In Minnesota and elsewhere, charter schools have been caught off guard, unfamiliar with intricate funding processes and unprepared to provide the assessment and services special education students need. Some charters schools simply assume their sponsoring district will provide any required services and, consequently, make few provisions of their own. Districts, already overextended and underfunded, are often reluctant to provide services and resources. Again, this issue can be complicated by a lack of communication or a well-defined process for interaction. In each case it is necessary for the charter school to work with the district to provide services or hire additional personnel to deliver services at the school site (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994).

All states are struggling with ways to ensure proper oversight and accountability for charter schools without inhibiting innovation. Concerns focus not only on the nature and scope of designated outcomes but also on the need to provide adequate monitoring to ensure that charter schools are in fact being held accountable.

Plan development
A recent GAO report (1995) found that accountability plans for charter schools vary considerably-not only in content but in quality. Plans for charter schools across the nation include a wide variety of student assessments and student outcomes. While some performance measures are negotiated between school organizers and the sponsoring body, others are mandated by the state. A number of schools are experimenting with alternative and more "authentic" forms of assessment, including student portfolios and demonstration projects. At the same time, many charter schools continue to include standardized achievement testing as all, or part, of their assessment plan.

In addition, student outcomes vary and include a wide variety of objective and subjective standards. Objective outcomes include specified gains on standardized tests, attendance, and graduation rates, while subjective outcomes focus more on students' ability to work independently and understand the responsibilities associated with citizenship (GAO, 1995).

Variations in quality rather than content, however, have generated the most concern. Researchers note that some accountability plans are detailed and already in place, while others-including some for charter schools open and operating-are still being developed and describe student outcomes in the very broadest of terms (GAO, 1995). Similarly, an examination of Minnesota contracts revealed that, in some instances, both outcomes and assessments "could be improved" (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994, p. 52).

Role of sponsoring body
In Minnesota (and several other states) it is the responsibility of the sponsoring district to ensure that outcomes are included in the charter contract. Although school boards reserve the right to cancel a charter's contract if the school is not meeting designated outcomes, it is not clear whether school boards are willing or able to adequately evaluate charter school outcomes and the degree to which students successfully meet those outcomes. Further, if the sponsoring entity is deemed responsible for holding charter schools accountable, they may increasingly be reluctant to sponsor new schools given the amount of time and resources needed for an evaluation of this kind (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1994).

Baseline data
The collection of baseline data is viewed by some as essential to evaluations of charter schools and to the determination of whether charter schools are more effective in educating students than traditional public schools (Huston et al., 1995). Moreover, the reporting of data by certain categories (i.e., race, sex, socioeconomic status) is critical to determining the progress of specific student groups. No state laws currently require the collection of baseline data, and some include no reporting requirements. In fact, most state laws encourage local discretion with regard to the type of data reported (GAO, 1995).

Equity and Choice
There continue to be questions about whether charter schools are designed to substantially increase choice options for at-risk students or, as critics charge, are designed to improve opportunities for students who are already academically and economically advantaged. 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. This is true in Colorado, where only a few of the state's sixteen charter schools are designed to attract at-risk students, and in California, where charter schools are often clustered in wealthier communities serving more advantaged student populations.

A number of different issues, if left unchecked, could impact the quality and equity of charter school choices for all students, but particularly for those at risk. These include admissions policies, the investment of parents, curricular innovation and diversity, and the location of charter schools.

Admissions policies
While there is little evidence of discrimination against particular student groups, charter schools in a few states do retain the right to limit admission based on student ability. In several states, charter laws do not specify admissions criteria. In others, laws are vague. For example, in Massachusetts, charters can limit student admission in order to maintain "reasonable" academic standards. If increasing numbers of charter schools exercise their right to reject students on the basis of their academic performance, the choice options of academically at-risk students could be further limited.

Moreover, some fear that if charter schools seek to attract more talented students, the broader public system could be drained of important intellectual resources. So far, relatively few charter schools exist and some have targeted narrow student populations with special needs or interests. But as charter school options expand and increasingly target a broader, more "mainstream" student population, there is at least the potential for a two-tiered educational system, much like those found in districts with magnet schools and other choice options for successful students. If charter schools begin to cater to the academic elite, there is a real fear that other public schools could become a "dumping ground" for the least successful students and teachers.

Parental investment
Charter schools, whether newly-formed or converted from existing schools, require an enormous investment of time, energy, and often money from parents and teachers. There is some concern that charter schools could be established by advantaged parent groups, often at the expense of more disadvantaged parents who have neither the time nor financial resources required to start or maintain a charter school. Findings from a preliminary study of California charter schools suggest that charter school proposals are more often initiated, written, and implemented in wealthier communities where the resources and expertise of parents and community members are readily available (Grutzik, Bernal, Hirshberg, & Wells, 1995).

There is also concern that charter schools may carry hidden costs for students and their families. By circumventing most state and district regulations, charter schools are able to eliminate costs subsidized by more traditional public schools. For example, charter schools could choose to eliminate transportation or school lunches, costs difficult to avoid in an ordinary public school setting. These costs could potentially be passed on to students and their families, some of whom would be unable to incur such expenses and would have to return to more traditional schools (Huston et al., 1995).

Curricular innovation and diversity
Concerns have also focused on whether charter schools are offering students a more innovative and diverse set of curricular options. Colorado, for example, has not witnessed a proliferation of diverse and innovative charter school curricula. In fact, there has been some emphasis on more traditional learning approaches (e.g., E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum) and more standard strategies for creating effective schools (Huston et al., 1995).

School location
Although it varies by state, charter school opportunities may be limited or enhanced depending on where a student resides. The Colorado Charter Schools Act limits the number of charter schools to 50 during the first five years of implementation and further restricts the number of charter schools in each district to eight. There were no provisions, however, for the distribution of schools throughout the state. The result has been a clustering of the large majority of the state's charter schools in a single region. Students in more rural and western regions of the state have few if any charter school options (Huston et al., 1995).

By contrast, a recent study of 34 California charter schools found that the schools were equally divided among metropolitan and rural localities. Not surprisingly, the schools serving the largest numbers of academically, economically, and linguistically disadvantaged students were in metropolitan areas. Charter schools located in these areas, however, also serve the widest range of students, including high proportions of advantaged students as well. In contrast, charter schools in small and rural towns served less diverse student populations (Dianda & Corwin, 1994).

The primary concern in California is the over-representation of charter schools in localities serving relatively small segments of the student population. While the vast majority of California students, including large numbers of disadvantaged students, are concentrated in metropolitan areas, charter schools are not. As a result, students in rural and small towns, at least proportionately, have the greatest number of charter school options. Moreover, charter schools that are located in metropolitan areas typically face the greatest number of obstacles, including resistance from their host districts, local boards, and teachers' unions (Dianda & Corwin, 1994). If these difficulties persist, students in the state's metropolitan areas may have even fewer school options.

Next Page: Teacher Roles and Responsibilities

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 5, July 1995, Charter Schools: Early Learnings (Comparison of Charter School Legislation)