Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Choice/Charter Schools
|“||It is wrong to think of charter schools as a monolith. There are schools for dropouts, schools for students who've been expelled, schools serving the most economically disadvantaged families. Charters are as diverse as the children they educate."||”|
—Rod Paige, Former U.S. Secretary of Education
As future teachers, we must be prepared for all of the changes that are constantly occurring in our schools. One major change over the last two decades is the introduction of Charter Schools. These schools of choice are becoming more common all over the United States and many teachers are needed to fill positions in them. But what are charter schools? Do they work? Will they change the face of the American school system?
Charter Schools are defined by the National Education Association as “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter” (NEA.org). This charter is a contract which outlines the school’s overall mission, including everything from the goals of their programs to the way they will assess success. Charter schools allow students more flexibility and options than traditional public schools, a benefit that appeals to both parents and community leaders. According to the National Study of Charter Schools, the three most common reasons for establishing a charter school are to “realize an educational vision, gain autonomy, [and] serve a special population” (uscharterschools.org). These schools operate like traditional public schools in many ways, especially in that they cannot charge a tuition fee or levy taxes. Their funding primarily comes from the school district and state or federal grants, although they also receive money from private sectors, such as nonprofit organizations or philanthropists. They are also required to meet the accountability requirements of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). If schools do not meet these requirements or the ones outlined in their charter they could risk being shut down by their authorizing bodies
History of Charter Schools
It is uncertain where exactly the idea of charter schools began. The term could have originated in New England in the 1970s when it was proposed that teachers be given contracts or “charters” to explore new educational approaches. The nation’s first true charter school, City Academy High School, opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992 after the state passed the first charter school law. Four years later, eighteen more states had passes charter school laws and school choice was serving an extensive range of income and minority groups. Federal support for charter schools started in 1995 with the adoption of the Public Charter Schools Program (PCSP). According to the most recent reports, over one million students in forty states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia attend one of over 3600 charter schools.
Establishment of Charter Schools
Charters are usually established “by individuals or groups based in both public and private sectors” (Vergari, 19). When it is decided to found a charter school, several steps must be taken. First is the exploration stage. During this period, state laws and policies should be examined and a core founding group should be assembled. A comprehensive school plan should also be designed. Next, a charter should be drafted asserting the mission statement, program objectives, the financial plan and any other major details necessary. At this point the proposal should be submitted. If they charter is approved, there are still many steps to take. The school must then finalize their formal operating plans and begin to recruit students and staff, including teachers and support. Once the school has opened its doors, the job is not done. Charter schools must continually “collect and interpret student performance data” to see how their teaching styles should be modified (uscharterschools.org). The work of those establishing a charter school is never done, as each charter school should successfully grow and evolve.
Benefits of Charter Schools
One of the major benefits of charter schools, in the opinion of many, is the way that they “counteract the effects of income level on educational opportunity by establishing expanded options for lower income families that are typically available only to wealthier families who are able to buy or rent homes in neighborhoods with more desirable schools” (Okala, 314). Charter schools are considered a voluntary alternative to court-ordered busing as a way to promote racial balance. Due to this, charter schools serve a higher percentage of low-income and minority students than traditional public schools (although special education students are less likely to attend). During the 2001-02 school year, approximately two-thirds of children in charter schools were minorities. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, about 41 percent of charter school students were of African-American or Hispanic descent, while public schools only enrolled about 32 percent of students from these groups. In addition, charter schools enrolled 5 percent more students who received free or reduced lunches.
Next, charter schools give parents and students a much larger selection of options that they would not usually be privy to in the public school system. These options include more choices when it comes to the curriculum, budget, and the overall philosophy held by educators, as well as input involving the teaching staff. This can often result in more teacher and community involvement than in traditional public schools.
Charter schools are also considered ideal over traditional public schools by many of their proponents because of their system of accountability. Charter schools operate in an almost competition like atmosphere, where their performance can influence their ability to get and keep students, receive funding from public and private ventures and can even determine whether or not they will be allowed to remain open.
Many proponents endorse the innovative nature of many charter schools. The best of charter schools “serve as laboratories for educational experimentation and innovation” (ECS.org). Without the regulations of traditional public schools to hold them back, educators and administrators can create and put into practice new teaching and learning tactics.
Weaknesses of Charter Schools
Because the concept of charter schools has been around for nearly two decades now, there has been ample time for people to realize their shortcomings. One argument is that the opportunity for choice in education could result in the “best” students and teachers being pulled from traditional public schools (Okala, 314). This argument is contradicted however, by an even larger negative – according to the National Education Association website, charter schools are fifty percent more likely to hire inexperienced and unqualified teachers. In fact, while 92 percent of teachers in traditional public schools held certification, only 79 percent of those in charter schools could boast this same qualification.
Charter schools as a whole are also not faring as well in terms of academic achievement as traditional public schools. A case study by the United States Department of Education revealed that out of five charter schools, all five were less likely to meet state performance standards. While over fifty percent of charter schools were meeting state standards in the 2001-02 school year, traditional public schools were slightly more successful. A study also revealed that students from charter schools “made considerably smaller achievement gains than they would have in traditional schools” (NEA.org).
Beyond Charter Schools
Although charter schools are the most prevalent of alternative schooling options, there are several other choices for those parents and students who want to learn in a different way. One example of this is the concept of magnet schools. A magnets school is a “public school that caters to students who are interested in certain academic subjects or who are interested in the arts” (Families.com). Unlike charter schools, many magnet schools require certain qualifications to enroll – this includes entrance exams, some of which are extremely difficult or minimum grade-point-average requirements. Oftentimes there are not enough spots for students in magnet schools, so those allowed in are chosen by a lottery. For example, The School of International Studies at Meadowbrook in Norfolk, Virginia, places their curriculum on the study of world cultures, languages, and military science. When a student enrolls, they choose one theme on which to focus, much like one would do in a college environment. Among the many requirements for enrollment at Meadowbrook, students must pass all of their fifth grade Standards of Learning exams and have at least a C+ average, plus must endure a sometimes lengthy lottery process.
Another choice for those wishing for alternative schooling options is homeschooling. Though homeschooling is quite controversial, it is a popular method. According to Homeschool.com, it is the “most flexible and diverse educational optional available today.” The advantages of homeschooling are strengthened family bonds and the flexibility that students are allowed. Disadvantages include the loss of income, as one parent must stay home to educate the children and a lack of confidence in their ability to teach or how well their children are learning. While homeschooling has its advantages and disadvantages it is one of the most popular methods of alternative schooling.
Charter schools are still in the somewhat early stages of their development, so it is far too early to decide whether or not they are a great idea or just another fleeting moment in American education. The academic results of them are widely varied and the topic sparks debate nearly any time it is brought up. While it may be a long time before we know whether or not charter schools are here to stay, we as future teachers must be aware of what they are and how they can have an impact on us and the students we will one day teach.
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- Education Commission of the States Website. Retrieved on 17 September 2007. 
- Homeschool.com Website. Retrieved on 19 September 2007 
- Mommytotwo. “Magnet Schools: Another Choice for Your Child.” Weblog Entry. 25 September 2006. Retrieved 20 September 2007. 
- National Education Association Website. Retrieved on 16 September 2007 
- Norfolk Public Schools Website. Retrieved 19 September 2007. 
- Okpala, Comfort O.; Bell, Genniver C.; Tuprah, Kwami. “A Comparative Study of Student Achievement in Traditional Schools and Schools of Choice in North Carolina.” Urban Education Vol. 42, no. 4, pp.313-325, July 2007
- Public Agenda Online. Retrieved on 15 September 2007 
- The Center for Education Reform. Retrieved on 17 September 2007 
- U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, ‘’Evaluation of the Public Schools Charter Program: Final Report,’’ Washington, D.C., 2004