The growing promise of charter schools

Nearly ten years after the first charter school opened in St. Paul, education experts have issued reports that blame government regulations for the problems plaguing these privately managed, but publicly accountable, schools. Although many families support the charter education alternative, the institutions do appear to lack the needed funds and support. The best formula for successful charter schools that satisfy critics is to grant autonomy and demand more accountability.
Charter schools educated some 250,000 American children in 1999 and enjoy wide bipartisan approval. Clinton even increased federal funding for the publicly financed schools by $30 million in his 2001 budget.
Despite federal, commercial and grassroots support, the popular education option has faced many barriers to development. Both critics and proponents of the system cite the same, common problems facing private administrators. Many of the non-profit groups running the schools have inadequate supplies and facilities. There is also evidence that the private institutions do not provide federally mandated care for special education students and spend more money on managerial costs than public schools.
A report issued by the Reason Public Policy Institute stated that the publicly financed schools benefit most from statutes that preserve independence but allow for direct, state funding. As 26 of the 37 states that currently allow charter schools do not provide start-up funding for them, nonprofit and grassroots organizations have difficulty raising the capital from sponsors and community members.
Next to a lack of start-up support and planning time, inadequate operating funds and facilities are the greatest impediments for emerging charter schools. A scathing story in U.S. News & World Report cited the poor facilities rampant in the institutions as a major factor for the substandard performance of a few such schools, but did not outline in detail the unequal distribution of funding.
Some charter school proponents highlight a need to reform traditional school financing systems to properly fund the new education organizations. As charter schools do not have access to local district funds for building and equipment improvement, they are forced to raise their own money to cover the costly expenditures. Furthermore, districts that appropriate funds to charter and public schools often have difficulty allocating a fair share to privately managed organizations because students from outside districts may attend.
Rather than receiving both state and local money for administrative costs, many privately managed schools are granted only the state portion. Independent reports show that in some states the public school alternatives are denied access to operating funds. Some charter schools also suffer from a lack of compensation for admitting special education students.
Not all criticisms of the charter school system can be attributed to the government and public education system, however. The Phi Delta Kappan reported in 2000 that there was little use of experimental teaching methods in charter schools, despite the opportunity for innovation. SRI International reported that 85 percent of the schools use traditional methods of classroom instruction.
The government should redefine its contract with the schools — which now requires that charter schools introduce experimental methods — if it believes that conventional teaching techniques can work there. Many states require charter schools to provide reliable data highlighting their innovative curriculum or teaching strategies.
The Charter School Expansion Act of 1998 forced the schools to present clear and measurable performance objectives. A decentralized, entrepreneur-driven education system allows for greater flexibility in instruction and administration, but the Phi Delta Kappan journal stressed the need for more public accountability among private educators.
The state must be careful to use non-intrusive efforts to monitor charter schools. Some teachers admitted making questionable instructional changes to match state testing guidelines. Government standards, which are important in ensuring the success and accountability of charter schools, should not dictate pedagogy. Despite the many forces working against charter schools, many report clear increases in student performance.
Some charter schools have clearly demonstrated their capability to decrease the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. With greater accountability while preserving their autonomy, charter schools will continue to provide better opportunities for some students disenchanted with public schools.