While I may have questions about vouchers, I really like the concept of charter schools as a tool for school choice. The basic idea of a charter is that a group of parents, teachers or community members (ideally a combination) get together and create a school around a specific educational goal. It might be that they want to provide a better basic education, emphasize a particular curriculum area, or target a specific underserved group of kids. Regardless of the focus of the school, the people running the charter are largely in charge of running the school with the local school system paying for each student attending and sometimes providing unused space in district buildings. The agreement – the charter – between the school and the taxpayers is that they will improve the education of the students attending.
There are many reasons to like charters. For one thing, forming a new school gets people thinking about the basics of what a school is supposed to be and do – back to the drawing board, as it were. That’s something we need to do anyway since over the decades, public schools have been given or adopted jobs that really don’t belong. Charters offer the opportunity to weed some of it out.
In the original concept, a charter school is run by the community – the parents, teachers and sometimes students – rather than a central administration. This kind of local control allows for more flexibility and, since a charter is usually smaller than most of the "standard" public schools, a more personal approach to teaching and learning. In addition to a great degree of autonomy, having a specific instructional theme provides the charter with the opportunity to better match teachers’ styles and philosophy with that of the school. The community approach also requires parents to be more involved with their kids’ education, which is always a plus.
With all this independence, however, charter schools are still using public money, which mean they are usually still accountable to have the students meet basic state and local educational standards. How they make it happen is where the freedom to innovate and creativity comes in. This accountability, along with the fact that the educational focus is clearly stated in the recruiting done by the school, gives parents excellent tools for making responsible choices for their children.
All of this is concept, of course. The execution of that concept has varied widely in the states where charter plans have been implemented. I’ve had the chance over the past ten years to watch a few charter schools being created and run. My wife taught in a charter school in the District of Columbia for five years. Her school’s focus was math and science and she would probably still be there if the group running the place had better accounting skills.
A friend is the "chairman" of a charter in another state with a focus on communications and the arts. In any "regular" school she would be the principal but her school is run by a board consisting of three parents, three teachers, three students and her. That charter has done very well in their seven years of existence by using some very innovative techniques to merge basic skills with the arts and grabbing the kids’ interest in a different way.
On the other end of the scale there are the charters that have been major failures, even fraudulent. In that category is the online charter school that Pennsylvania never should have allowed to exist. In several states, including Arizona, Florida and over the river in DC, charter administrators have used their schools as a personal cash cow. In fact, more charters close due to financial mismanagement than for educational failure.
In spite of the problems, charters still have a great deal of potential to offer parents choices in their kids education. Like any other educational reform idea, charters are not a magic wand or appropriate for every child. However, I could see turning a chunk of the overly large district I work for into charter schools with each school focused on different student needs and learning styles. Imagine taking a huge rather impersonal high school and chopping it up into three or four smaller independently-run schools in the same building.
None of this is likely to happen anytime soon, of course, but public education is badly in need of a major overhaul. Smaller, more focused, locally run schools would be an excellent start. The charter concept could make that happen.