Charter schools are a type of public school that enjoys more pedagogical freedom in exchange for greater educational outcomes. Unlike private schools, they do not charge tuition. Originally conceived in a maelstrom of the school reform movement of the 1970s as a school-within-a school wherein select public school teachers were chartered to innovate, the idea quickly became applied to entire public schools in the wake of the sobering results documented in the 1983 government report, "A Nation at Risk." Charter schools now operate in 40 different states, and, depending on the particular state, they are overseen by state education authorities, local school boards, nonprofit corporations or even for-profit companies. Parents can choose to send their children to charter schools as opposed to traditional public schools, though they often encounter waiting lists. As a moderate form of privatization in comparison with school vouchers, charter schools enjoy broad political support and have been identified by President George W. Bush as a key part of the national educational reform strategy outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Charter schools are a form of public school authorized by a governing body, such as a local school board, state department of education, nonprofit organization, or (in several states) a for-profit corporation. They are chartered for a period of time, with renewals based on performance. Charter schools are distinct from traditional public schools in two respects: they are free of many of the bureaucratic entanglements, and they tend to use more innovative educational techniques. Put another way, charter schools are left "free to experiment in exchange for greater accountability":
"Free to experiment how? To lengthen the school day, mix grades, require dress codes, put teachers on their school boards, double up instruction in core subject areas like math or reading, make parents genuine partners in family-style school cultures, adopt any instructional practice that will help achieve their missions--free, in short, to do whatever it takes to build the skills, knowledge, and character traits their students need to succeed in today's world" (U.S. Department of Education, 2004, p. 1).
Unlike private schools, charter schools are public schools supported by taxpayers, and they are not wholly free of oversight by local school boards and state and federal education agencies. Supporters refer to them as "public schools of choice" (U.S. Charter Schools, n.d.) because it gives lower-income parents the opportunity to send their children to charter schools instead of traditional public schools. Like wealthier parents who choose to send their children to private schools, parents without those financial resources have a choice about where their children will be educated. Another important difference is that charter schools do not charge tuition. Finally, charter schools are distinctive in that they seek to defend and improve public education, and do not challenge its legitimacy or efficacy.
Charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon in American K-12 education. While private schools, religious schools, agricultural schools, and military schools all have deep historical roots, the genesis of the public charter school idea began only in the 1970s. It was a time in American education when there was a growing consensus that the top-down, overly bureaucratic public school system was struggling to deliver the educational outcomes demanded by politicians, parents, and teachers. This was documented in A Nation at Risk, the sobering 1983 U.S. government report on public education. There was also the sense that one-size-fits-all education was out of sync with accumulating evidence that suggested smaller class sizes and greater community involvement in schools are crucial to producing students ready to take on the challenges of a burgeoning knowledge-based economy.
Ray Budde & Education by Charter
Out of this intellectual ferment came an idea from New England educator Ray Budde. Budde (1988) recommended that school boards give teachers "charters" to empower them to try out new and innovative teaching methods. In his booklet Education by Charter, Budde (1988) stresses the importance of school district reform for educational reform, and he lists specific action steps for public districts to take. A few of the most relevant steps are:
* Teachers are given responsibility for control over instruction through the mechanism of educational charters. Educational charters allow groups of teachers to receive direct funding from the school board for planning and implementing plans for instruction.
* It is the responsibility of the classroom teacher to [help] students take responsibility for their learning and behavior in such a way that pupils develop skills and build attitudes to become lifelong learners.
* All principals should be "creating and maintaining a safe, positive learning environment within the school; supporting teachers in carrying out their responsibilities for teaching; and on occasion, being visible models of 'good teacher' and 'good learner.'"
* External monitoring of school progress.
* The creation of a "citizens education council" to "strengthen ties between education and business, labor, parents, and other citizens"(Budde, 1988, pp. 117-118).
Budde was not proposing what we know as public charter schools--he was envisioning small groups of "chartered" teachers working in a given public school. However, it was not long before others took his core idea about educational charters to a new level.
The public charter school idea went from theory into practice in the late 1980s when some public schools in Philadelphia created charter schools within existing public schools. The results of this experiment convinced other states that charter schools are an effective solution to the woes of public schools. In 1991, the first public charter school law was passed in Minnesota, followed a year later by California. By 1995, 19 states had passed charter school laws. By 2009 there were public charter schools operating in 41 states as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Guam. In 2006, over a million public school students were attending more than 3,500 public charter schools across the United States (U.S. Charter Schools, n.d.) This is two percent of American schoolchildren (Kansas State Department of Education, 2006, p. i), or only one-fifth of the enrollment in private schools (Broughman & Swaim, 2006). In 2011, the number of charter school students had increased to 1.8 million, who were enrolled in 5,300 schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).
Support for Charter Schools
For many parents and educators, charter schools hold great promise, and they have earned bipartisan political support over since the 1990s. A 2007 report concludes:
"As a public-private hybrid, charter schools compose a relatively moderate reform when considered in the context of plans that would retain the long-standing policy monopoly in public education and proposals for almost complete privatization through a public voucher system. The diverse nature of the charter school reform has made it attractive to constituents of different ideological and political persuasions. Indeed, both liberals and conservatives have founded charter schools" (Vergari, 2007, p. 32).
Charter schools were identified as a key part of the national educational reform strategy outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, as well as the Department of Education's Race to the Top initiative of 2009. Similarly, the National Education Association, the largest public school teacher's union, has argued that charter schools can be an important catalyst for educational change:
"NEA believes that charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all children. Whether charter schools will fulfill this potential depends on how charter schools are designed and implemented, including the oversight and assistance provided by charter authorizers" (NEA, n.d.). Given the fact that many charter schools have waiting lists, supporters hail them as the right solution to the problems plaguing the public school system, though skeptics have their doubts that any public education system can be agile enough to educate the twenty-first century workforce. Therefore the debate over public charter schools continues. Supporters and critics of charter schools agree, however, that education reform in American must succeed because our children deserve nothing less. As Crandall (1988) wrote in the preface to Education by Charter:
"Given the tendency of American education to swing from status quo to reform and back to status quo, we cannot help but wonder; Will...
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