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Published:January 29th, 2006 12:05 EST
Charter Schools: Pioneers of Education

Charter Schools: Pioneers of Education

By Sean Stubblefield

Current data and simple observation tell us that academic achievement in American public schools has been gradually and significantly declining. Compared to a decade ago and compared to peers in some other countries (like Japan), academic standards and performance in American public schools are generally yielding less successful results in education. Whatever our public education system is doing, it isn’t working. Students are typically disinterested, disengaged and unmotivated in academic learning. According to a report from the Center on Education Policy (called Raising Student Achievement), a study done in 1996 by the BrainWaves Group, a consumer research company, revealed that “U.S. teens are far busier with non-school (or non-intellectual) activities than the rest of the world’s adolescents”, in other industrialized countries.

Surely, some of the blame belongs to our culture’s attitudes, to students who do not cooperate with schools, and to parents who do not instill adequate discipline in their children. In the wisdom of “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, no reform will work if the students aren’t willing to commit to the learning process.

But many educators and concerned citizens are calling for education reform. It seems to be generally agreed that contemporary public education is not adequately teaching our children. For years, many people have been disappointed with public education; which is why President Bush instigated the test-based “Leave No Child Behind” initiative in an attempt to revise the system to produce better scholastic results.
But the vote is still out on whether this is a satisfactory or appropriate solution.

Parents or students dissatisfied with the obvious failings of the public education system may want to consider charter schools as a practical alternative to public schools. 

The statistics of a nationwide Gallop poll survey released this year indicate that support for the concept of charter schools in America is increasing; 48% of parents with children in a public school and 49% of individuals without children are in favor.

But the details about these schools are mostly unknown among the general public.

The Carl Sagan Academy, America’s first Humanist charter, is scheduled to open in Florida for the 2005 fall school year.According to a April 2005 report by The Center for Education Reform, approximately 3400 charter schools are currently operational in 40 states of the U.S., serving nearly 1 million students; more than 450 of these schools opened in 2004 and 2005.
Over 230 new charter schools are approved to open by the end of 2006. Almost 40% of these schools report having an enrollment waiting list of about 130 students.
Since the “charter movement” began in 1992, a little over 350 charter schools have closed for various reasons.
Charter Schools are so named because each one must formulate and submit for approval a charter, or performance contract, describing the school's goals, methods, intended students and ways to measure success.

Although more autonomous, flexible and innovative than standardized public schools, charter schools are public institutions, not private (so there is no tuition), but are smaller in size and still subject to regulations and oversight (which can limit a degree of flexibility in some schools).

Official charter school authorizers are required to approve applications and funding, with about 600 authorizers nationwide. No charter is permanent, and must be renewed (or revoked) at regular intervals, with continued funding dependant on maintaining enrollment criteria and demonstrating academic results.

The schools are free to determine their own internal governing, curriculum, budgets, staff, and philosophy, permitting input from both parents and teachers.

In 2004, The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement published a study, entitled Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools, which identifies examples of innovations in successful Charter Schools throughout America.

In this report, Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, tells us that, “Twelve years after the first charter school was launched, the charter school movement is now entering its adolescence. Like many pre-teens, it's had its share of growing pains, but I am confident that it is about to hit a growth spurt. That is because charter schools are enormously popular with their primary clients-- parents and students-- and because they are starting to show promising results in terms of student achievement. The basic tenets of charter schools give them room to be innovative, hold them accountable for results, and let parents decide if they meet the needs of their children. They are perfectly aligned with the historic No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which also focuses on accountability for results in return for more flexibility, and with providing more options for parents than ever before.”
However, unlike Bush’s NCLB plan, these schools are not merely “testing centers” concerned only with test results while neglecting liberal arts or morale.
Important to note is the fact that the impact of charter schools, both on its students and the public education system, is currently not definitive. After more than a decade of chartering, available and reliable research varies, but the results— though, as yet, inconclusive-- are considered encouraging.
Effectiveness measurements are relatively uncertain at this point because it is difficult to generalize about so many specific schools that have different standards and features.

Different schools may provide different teaching methods, different ideologies, different atmospheres, different materials, and different classes that can vary per school, in age groups from K-12.

Furthermore, the use of charter schools is fairly new, experimental in nature and still being tested and evaluated for effectiveness. While some of these schools may utilize a methodology similar or identical to public schools, most of them are trying new and untested practices, or perhaps re-trying older ones. In a sense, the charter movement functions as a laboratory experiment, seeking to determine which education methods may work better than the ones used in public school districts. Fortunately, that means students and parents could have another, potentially more productive, option for youth education than the standardized, assembly line “rank and file” mentality to education in public schools. Unfortunately, this also means that students might end up being guinea pigs in this trial and error teaching approach, in which the eventual results are relatively indeterminate. There may be a superior, or at least acceptable, education… or there may not. The teachers are learning with the kids, which is debatably both a good and bad aspect.
Despite the unknowns, the consensus among evaluators is that these schools tend to be and seem to be mostly successful and promising, but more time and testing will tell for sure what educational models do or don’t really work well, as well as how they do or don’t work. Research indicates that the majority of charter schools are either better than or comparable to most typical public schools, in terms of a measurable quality of education and academic performance.
Besides educating children, the objective of charter schools is to devise and discover, through education refinement and reform, a more effective way to educate; and, ideally, to introduce what they find as being more successful methods into the public school system or into other charter schools.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools informs us that about 25% of America’s public school districts have adjusted what they offer their students in response to the existence of charter schools.
They also say that charter schools often do not have adequate funding, staffing and resources, which requires them to limit resources and, thus, enrollment. But on the plus side, that also means children could receive more one-on-one attention with teachers, while providing a more intimate environment.
Most people accept state run public schools out of habit or ignorance of alternatives, because it’s convenient; it’s there, it’s free, it’s what “everyone” else does, and any student can attend. But what good is any of that if it isn’t getting the job done?

Now that we have more choice for where we get our education, we may no longer have to settle for that as the only option.

For more information on charter schools: