Evaluating our charter schools

The proliferation of charter schools demands oversight.

The governor of Ohio recently began a contentious campaign against the abundance of underachieving charter schools in the state. Of 328 charter schools in Ohio, more than half have been given failing or near-failing grades. While Ohio has an exceptionally poor record with charter schools, their story demonstrates the difficulties associated with this trendy academic model.

Charter schools gained popularity in the late 1980s as a way to reform public education. These publicly funded institutions can be formed by any group of educators who apply for permission from the state. These schools operate under an agreement with the state or local government.

Minnesota has long been a leader in the charter school movement, and our state opened the nation’s first charter school in 1992. Since then, the movement has caught on, and today there are roughly 4,000 nationwide. In Minnesota, there are currently 131 charter schools enrolling 23,000 students.

The difficulty with charter schools arises from quality control issues. Since each school is operated independently, some flourish while others suffer from financial mismanagement. In Minnesota, a 2003 report Office of the Legislative Auditor found that one quarter of the state’s charter schools had financial problems. This is more than just a few troubled schools. The charter schools also see a wide range of academic results.

Ohio seems to have more problems than other states, but it is a good reminder that we need charter schools to be accountable. As more and more of these alternative schools open their doors, they are siphoning money from traditional public schools. Like Ohio, Minnesota should take a hard look at the current state of charter schools. Is their presence boosting our quality of education, or are these schools causing more harm than good?

There is no doubt that charter schools can provide exceptional academic experiences through smaller classes, nontraditional teaching methods and highly dedicated staff. The question is whether our charter schools are currently providing this desired experience.