Charter schools are increasingly in the news as the alternative schools that work—sometimes.
They are either lauded as the cure for public schooling or vilified as academic holding tanks, cramming as many students in as possible before being shut down, leaving hundreds of kids without a classroom. As a result, charter schooling has added the word "regulations" to the three Rs of education.
What are charter schools? How do they operate? How can they be made to work for everybody?
"Charter schools are not created, they are envisioned," says Janice Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness in the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries. "They are places where education visionaries can try out their ideas. But more regulation is needed. Some charter schools are really for-profit companies using canned curricula. And there are people that are trying to use the charter system to rip off the public."
Without proper regulations, says Resseger, charter schools also lack a certain accountability to the state for the quality of education being offered.
Charter schools are essentially independent public schools that operate outside of the bureaucracy that can stifle innovation in traditional public schools. Charters can pick and choose new and exciting programs, from the "back to basics" approach to the specific and specialized.
Nearly anyone interested in starting a charter school—including parents, teachers, community groups and grassroots organizations—can do so. Charter schools set operational and academic goals. If the schools fail to meet those goals, they are closed by the state.
There are more than 2,000 charter schools operating in 34 states, serving some 500,000 students.
Almost 70 percent of charter schools have a waiting list equal to their enrollment. Currently, 36 states and the District of Columbia have laws governing charter schools, and the laws vary widely. While people are eager to enroll their kids in charter schools, charter schools themselves have a number of challenges to face just to stay open.
When it comes to funding for operation, charter schools do not have access to municipal bonds, the most common financing for public schools. Many are not part of a local school district and have no authority to raise taxes or issue tax-exempt bonds. Even charter schools that are a part of a local school district don't share the same monies. Some state funds do exist, but charter schools rely largely on per-pupil allocation, loans and donations to pay for teachers and school buildings.
Per-pupil allocation is funding that the state or school district provides, and is frequently less than the average amount for other students in the district. These monies are used to cover the cost of books and teachers' salaries, and usually don't cover the cost of the school building itself. Loans are not easily available to charter schools because these schools have poor cash flow, lack any real credit history and, as such, are considered credit risks. Donations of school facilities are rare, and often these buildings require much renovation to bring them up to code.
By and large, charter schools are a good thing, says Gail Meister, associate director of the Drexel University/FOUNDATIONS Inc. Technical Assistance Center for Public Charter Schools in Philadelphia. But, she adds, they are not all created equal. But because of laws in her state, the community has an active hand in the qualitative inner workings of its charter schools.
"The Architecture and Design Public Charter School [for example] is built around teaching architectural principles," says Meister. "There are teachers, but there are also architects that come in to instruct students on the finer aspects of the architectural design field."
The community keeps close tabs on the progress of the schools, looking for methods that can be applied in the public sector.
"This is a system that works," Meister says.
But with public schools struggling to stay open and relevant, and charter schools throughout the United States often shutting down due to financial or curricula problems, the charter school method of educating children seems to come with adherent risk.
"To be sure," says Meister, "there are charters that have problems with curriculum and finding funding. The community must be vigilante in their insistence on a quality, innovative education that will enrich everyone. And there are schools that run out of money or mismanage funds, but they are in the minority."
Are charter schools the symptom of public schools gone astray or the cure for our ailing public school system?
"Well," says the Rev. Madison Shockley, a UCC minister serving as director of the Private Development New Visions Foundation in Los Angeles, "charter schools are an opportunity. There are those who make good use of this opportunity and those who have other motives. It depends on the organizations involved."
Gail Meister concurs. "They're neither symptom or cure, in my mind," she says. "Charter schools represent a choice. They give the community input and options about educating their children that they wouldn't have otherwise."