The emerging research from charter school sites across the country highlights a number of issues that have important implications for future policy. Many of the problems charter schools face in their initial years of operation might be avoided, or at least minimized, with thoughtful and carefully crafted legislation and school charters. In framing and drafting these documents, decision makers may want to consider the following issues and questions.
Autonomy is clearly the most critical issue in determining the rights and responsibilities of charter schools. The degree to which charter schools can act autonomously with regard to school operations, planning, management, and funding is determined by legislative provisions for legal status, approval processes, funding, and rule exemptions. Autonomy can also significantly influence the ways charter schools and local districts define, clarify, and interact in their roles relative to one another.
- Will charter schools be legally autonomous? Will charter schools be legally liable and responsible for school operations or will they remain dependent on local districts? Will legal liability be negotiable?
- Will charter schools be financially autonomous? Will charter school funding be non-negotiable and set by the state or will funding be subject to negotiation with local districts? How will monies flow to charter schools?
- What kind of process will be established for the approval of charter schools? Will local approval be required? Will rejected charter school applicants have a process for appeal? When local approval is required, what kind of approval and appeals process will encourage the best charter-district relationship? Are specific provisions potentially divisive?
- How will charter schools be exempted from state and local rules and regulations? Will charter schools receive a "blanket" exemption or be required to apply for waivers on a rule-by-rule basis?
- What kinds of processes can ensure better communication and interaction between charter schools and local districts to effectively deal with issues of infrastructure (e.g., transportation) and ensure the smoother delivery of special programs and services (e.g., special education)?
The extent to which charter schools will be held to stricter standards of accountability depends on how responsibly performance is assessed and reported. In addition, the collection of baseline data may be critical to validate claims of student improvement.
- How will charter school accountability be ensured? Will accountability plans be well developed and articulated prior to the opening of charter schools?
- How will charter school claims of student improvement and school success be validated? What kind of baseline data will be necessary? Will data be collected by race, sex, and socioeconomic status in order to judge the progress of specific student groups?
- How will student assessments and outcomes be monitored and tracked? Do sponsoring bodies have the knowledge and resources they will need to undertake this task?
- Will participation in state-wide assessment programs be required? Could required participation inhibit innovation?
Equity and Choice
Charter schools are envisioned as a means for increasing educational opportunities for all children but particularly for those at risk. Certain provisions are critical to protect disadvantaged students and to ensure real, quality choices for all students.
- How will charter schools help advance educational equity for all students? Can admissions criteria potentially limit access for some at-risk student groups?
- How will charter schools help advance equitable choice options for all parents? How can charter schools ensure equitable options for socially and economically disadvantaged parents who may not have the resources to organize and support a local charter school?
- How will diversity, in terms of focus and curriculum, be encouraged among charter schools?
- Will a fair or balanced distribution of charter schools across the state be encouraged?
Teacher Roles and Responsibilities
Charter schools do improve professional opportunities for teachers by encouraging their participation in all aspects of school operation and management. They also represent a significant increase in workplace demands for already overextended teachers. In some instances, these demands are compounded by low salaries, a lack of job security, and union resistance. If not addressed, teacher issues could, in time, threaten the stability of charter schools.
- How will salaries and benefits be determined for charter school employees? Will experienced and inexperienced teachers receive the same pay? Will charter school teachers be assured the same benefits as district teachers? If salaries and benefits remain low, how will charter schools continue to attract and retain quality teachers?
- Will job security for teachers be ensured? Can provisions be made that allow teachers to move between charter schools and local districts without jeopardizing job security?
- What are the implications of hiring non-certified teachers in the classroom? What are the effects of hiring non-certified teachers on teacher professionalism?
- What are the implications of teachers "doing it all"? How can teachers be protected from professional "burnout"?
Funding and Assistance
The most common theme addressed in the emerging research is the need for start-up funds. Without additional funds, the future of quality charter schools may be in jeopardy. Evidence also points to the need for technical assistance, particularly in the early stages of implementation. Moreover, there continue to be questions about how charter schools will be able to maintain quality programs and facilities without the infusion of additional monies in the future.
- How will charter schools fund critical start-up costs? Can provisions be made to provide monies in the early stages of planning and implementation?
- How will charter schools purchase and maintain building facilities? Can monies be set aside to aid charter schools with building costs?
- What kinds of technical assistance will charter schools need? Who will provide the assistance?
- How will charters sustain benefits (e.g., low-student teacher ratios) in the face of likely increases in personnel and facilities costs?
If charter schools are in fact designed not only to provide innovative educational choice options but also to foster change and improvement throughout the entire system, it remains necessary to establish a means for sharing information between charter schools and other schools within the district and throughout the state. At the same time, it may be necessary to take measures to protect and support existing public schools.
- How will policies and procedures being tried in charter schools be monitored and evaluated for success?
- How will information about successful policies and practices "trickle down" to other public schools? How will the knowledge gained from charter schools be gathered and distributed? Who will do this?
- What kind of supports and resources may be needed by other public schools trying to implement innovations as a result of charter schools? Who will provide them?
- What kinds of provisions can help ensure fair market competition between charter schools and other public schools?
- By 1994, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin had passed charter schools legislation. This year, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming considered legislation. As this INSIGHTS goes to press, bills have passed in several states including Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Wyoming.
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