Charter Schools Offer Options

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 15, 2000, p. 15A

Charter schools are coming to Iowa.

They started in Minnesota in 1991 but have yet to move south. Surely Iowa will someday join the nearly 40 states that permit this educational experiment.

If you watched any of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia you heard charter schools mentioned by Gov. George W. Bush and other speakers.

President Clintonís an advocate. Politicians think the idea will be popular.

So what are charter schools anyway? A passing educational fad? An attack on public education? Or a progressive improvement our school district should welcome?

Like many labels in education, such as middle schools and magnet schools, the charter school label is applied to a variety of schools. The only thing they have in common is a charter.

So whatís a charter?

Itís a contract, an agreement between an educational agency and a private group. Most run three to five years. The private group is given public money to run a public school. In exchange, it agrees to produce specified results. Thatís the contract, or charter.

Itís not unlike the distinction our school district makes between the ends set by the School Board and the means for reaching them chosen by the superintendent.

Charter schools can innovate with any means, so long as they reach the ends. When they donít, the charter can be revoked.

Without charter school legislation, the state holds the monopoly. Thatís why itís called public education.

We have no shortage of religious and other private schools. Home schooling is growing. And specialty schools abound, such as for music, athletics or tutoring. But parents pay for them.

Public education is free to parents, or nearly so. But itís one-size-fits-all. Districts tell parents where their children go to school, how theyíll get there, their class size, who their teacher will be, what sheíll be teaching them, and how much parents are entitled to know about whatís going on.

Charter schools offer more parental control. Theyíre an alternative to vouchers. Teachers, parents and students self-select to participate. They enjoy autonomy from many of the public schoolsí regulations and restraints.

Most founders are motivated by alternative visions of schooling (year-round schools, music or science emphasis, multi-grade classes). The organizers may be universities (I visited UCSDís in San Diego), formerly public or private schools, groups of teachers, parents.

Sometimes profit-focused business persons think they can do a better job than public schools.

Charter school legislation provides their opportunity.

So how are they doing? Itís a little too early to know. Thereís been rapid annual growth, but only 1 percent of students are involved. One-third of the charter schools are in California. Three percent have closed.

Popular? Most have long waiting lists.

Elitist? The percentage of low-income, minority, foreign language and disabled students is the same, and usually higher, than public schools. Individual schools vary.

Overcrowded? Two-thirds have fewer than 200 students K-12.

Resources? Chartersí student-computer ratios are slightly better than public schools.

Meeting goals? Results are mixed. Some charter schoolsí students are doing much better than public school students. Others are not. Parentsí income and educational level remain predictive factors. Public accountability and standards have proved a major problem. Teachers may be less experienced.

As of now charter schools are an unproven concept. There is far less empirical research than emotional rhetoric Ė both pro and con. New Zealandís rethinking its decade of experience with charter schools.

At a minimum charters offer choice. No one has ever been forced to create, work in, or attend a charter school. When they become legal in Iowa our district still wonít have one until local citizens start it.

When charter schools work they benefit not only those who participate but the entire school district. Experiments that work can be copied by a districtís public schools.

However, when they fail, whether educationally or financially, it is the students who bear the burden.

Charter schools are coming to Iowa. They offer choice.

And our first choice is whether they reach this school district at all.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site