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September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

The Promise of Charter Schools

Charter schools offer a radically different approach to providing and managing public education, but not necessarily a smooth road.

Charter schools are not for the faint of heart. Their creation, governance, and day-to-day operation require a large investment of time and energy, and a high tolerance for ambiguity. Significant education reform undertakings are, after all, uncharted waters.
  • resolving the school autonomy struggle in a way that traditional site-based decision making has not;
  • creating additional “real” choices within the public school arena for students, parents, and teachers;
  • offering new professional opportunities for teachers;
  • enabling local school boards to overcome micro-management tendencies and become true policy boards;
  • eliminating many real and perceived barriers to innovation through blanket waivers of most state laws and local policies; and
  • focusing educational energies on outcomes, not inputs.
While charter schools hold great promise, as with any reform, they present formidable challenges. First, we'll look at what charter schools are, their current status across the country, and, finally, key issues that arise when establishing them.

A “Model” Structure

In its purest form, a charter school is an autonomous educational entity operating under a contract negotiated between the organizers who manage the school (teachers, parents, or others from the public or private sector), and the sponsors who oversee the provisions of the charter (local school boards, state education boards, or some other public authority).
Charter provisions address such issues as the school's instructional plan, specific educational outcomes and their measurement, and management and financial issues. A charter school may be formed from a school's existing personnel and facilities or from a portion thereof (for example, a school-within-a-school); or it may be a completely new entity with its own facilities.
Once approved, a charter school is an independent legal entity with the ability to hire and fire, sue and be sued, award contracts for outside services, and control its own finances. Funding is based on student enrollment, as it would be for a school district. With a focus on educational outcomes, charter schools are freed from many (or all) district and state regulations often perceived as inhibiting innovation—for example, excessive teacher certification requirements, collective bargaining agreements, Carnegie units, and other curriculum requirements.
  1. At least one other public authority besides the local school board is able to sponsor the school (for example, a county board, state board, or university).
  2. The state allows a variety of public or private individuals/groups the opportunity to organize, seek sponsorship, and operate a charter school.
  3. The charter school is a discrete legal entity.
  4. The charter school, as a public entity, embraces the ideals of the common school. It is nonsectarian in programs and operations, tuition-free, nonselective in admissions, nondiscriminatory in practices, and accountable to a public body.
  5. Each charter school is accountable for its performance, both to parents and to its sponsoring public authority.
  6. In return for stricter accountability, states exempt charter schools from all state and local laws and regulations except those related to health, safety, and nondiscrimination practices, and those agreed to within the charter provisions.
  7. A charter school is a school of choice for students, parents, and teachers; no one is forced to be there.
  8. Each charter school receives the full operating funds associated with its student enrollment (that is, fiscal autonomy).
  9. Within a charter school, teachers may be employees or owners and/or subcontractors. If previously employed in a district, they retain certain “leave” protections (seniority, retirement benefits, and so on) should they choose to return within a designated time frame.
These nine elements describe what some believe to be an ideal situation. In practice, however, charter school legislation varies widely.
Of the 11 charter school laws enacted as of July 1994, none encompassed every element, primarily because the radical nature of the concept demanded many political compromises. Four areas raise the most concern: (1) sponsorship options (especially by groups other than the local school board), (2) legal autonomy, (3) funding formulas, and (4) protection given to teachers.
Next we'll look at existing charter school legislation and a progress report on charter school start-ups to date.

Pioneering Charter Schools

Ray Budde, an expert on school district organization, is credited with introducing the charter school concept during the late 1980s. Budde based his work on explorer Henry Hudson's charter with the East India Company to find a new passage to the Orient (Stuart 1994, Mulholland and Amsler 1992). Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, furthered the idea by proposing that groups of teachers be allowed to start their own schools under a charter process.
The first state to translate the idea to practice was Minnesota, where after a tough political struggle, charter school legislation was passed in 1991. The next year, California followed with its own law, and by the end of 1993, six more states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Georgia—had also passed charter school legislation (Bierlein and Mulholland 1994). By summer 1994, Arizona, Kansas, and Hawaii joined the list, with active legislation pending in a number of other states.
To better understand the concept, we will take a look at charter laws and a few schools in Minnesota, California, and Massachusetts.
Minnesota. Building upon existing public school choice programs, Minnesota initiated its program in 1991, called “outcome-based schools.” This law initially authorized creation of up to eight legally and financially autonomous schools as organized by certified teachers and sponsored by school boards. By the end of the 1992–93 school year, two charter schools were in operation. City Academy, located in a donated city recreation building in St. Paul, offers a year-round program for approximately 40 at-risk students ages 13–21. Bluffview Montessori, a private K—6 school, converted to charter status in March 1993.
During 1993–94, five additional schools with diverse program offerings began operating under Minnesota charters. For example, Metro Deaf, a school for deaf and hearing impaired students, emphasizes deaf language, culture, and history. Skills for Tomorrow, a vocational/technical school supported by the Teamsters Union and the Minnesota Business Partnership, emphasizes applied learning through internships. A third example is New Heights Schools, Inc., a pre-K—12 school for at-risk students.
In 1993 and 1994, Minnesota modified its legislation to allow up to 35 charter schools across the state. An appeals process to the state board of education was also added.
California. In September 1992, California adopted the nation's second charter schools law, partly as a defense against the possible passage of a private school voucher ballot measure. The law allows up to 100 charter schools in the state, and permits any individual to initiate a charter school petition. Potential sponsors include the local school district or, if an appeal is sought, the applicable county board of education. By law, California charter schools must be financially autonomous, but the extent of each school's legal autonomy is determined within its specific charter agreement. About half of the 100 schools allowed by law have been approved thus far, though many are not currently operating.
California charter school proposals encompass a wide variety of innovative strategies. For example, Bennett Valley Charter School employs a home-based independent learning approach; Options for Youth Charter School focuses on dropouts and those at risk of dropping out; and Bowling Green Elementary School practices W. Edwards Deming's Total Quality Management. Unlike their counterparts in Minnesota, however, many California charter schools were converted from existing schools rather than created entirely new.
Massachusetts. As part of a broader reform package, Massachusetts passed legislation in 1993 that encompasses nearly all of the key charter school elements. Under this law, 25 public charter schools are permitted. Each may be organized by two or more certified teachers, 10 or more parents, or by any individual or group that successfully enters into a charter agreement with the state secretary of education. The state automatically grants charter schools legal and financial autonomy.
The initial charter school application process yielded 64 proposals, of which 15 obtained preliminary approval. Three of these involve a partnership with the Edison Project, a for-profit enterprise. These schools will have a rigorous curriculum, an extended school day and year, and rely heavily on technology (Walsh 1994). Other approved proposals include one from Boston University for a residential high school serving homeless children and wards of the state, and the Benjamin Franklin Classical School, which will provide a classical education for grades K—8.

New Challenges and Opportunities

  • Charter schools require new relationships between school boards and schools. School boards have historically been the sole providers of, and primary decision makers for, public education in their communities. Many charge that such boards try to micro-manage events, rather than set broad policy direction. Under charter school legislation, local boards and district offices may find their roles and responsibilities greatly altered. For example, some states limit board authority over charter schools to contract oversight, while other states eliminate board authority completely if the school's sponsor is not the local board. To date, school board associations have resisted legislation that either allows sponsorship by authorities other than local boards or declares charter schools legally and financially autonomous.Some school board members, however, see a brighter side to the charter school picture, especially as an alternative to private school vouchers. Randy Quinn (1993), executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, writes that charter schools represent ... a dramatic, very fundamental difference, one that forces the school board to reexamine its role. Rather than serving as provider, the board has an opportunity to become the purchaser of education services on behalf of the citizens of the community served by the board. He further suggests that boards may want to aggressively solicit charter proposals to create a diversity of schools within their district.Paul Hill (1994), a senior social scientist at RAND, takes Quinn's concept one step further. He suggests that every public school (especially within a large city setting) should be under contract to a local school board. Such contracting, Hill believes, would provide necessary market incentives for teachers and administrators, while maintaining enough “public” oversight by local boards to preserve the ideals of the common school.
  • Charter schools utilize true site-based decision making. Despite frequent lip service paid to site-based decision making practices in many districts, most current school-based decisions focus on curriculum and involve only a small amount of discretionary funding. This is true, in part, because school boards remain legally responsible for decisions. Further, except for salary negotiations, many school staff members prefer not to become involved in personnel and other major decisions.Charter schools address decentralization and empowerment issues in a way that current site-based management may not. Ideally, charter schools are legally and financially autonomous. However, even if the local board remains legally liable, charter school personnel gain substantial budgetary control, thus realizing greater control over their professional lives and the education of their students.Expanded decision-making authority, however, presents a serious leadership concern even for those eager to assume such responsibility. Are school personnel adequately prepared to manage what is, essentially, a small business? Perhaps not. Most principals currently focus their energies on instructional activities, not financial and management matters; and most teachers are justifiably hesitant to make personnel or budgetary decisions for which they have no training and that take time away from the classroom.There is no easy solution to this concern. Without proper training and outside technical support, principals and teachers will find it difficult to envision their schools, and their roles in those schools, in ways that are radically different from the present. Unfortunately, few state legislatures have appropriated funding for support activities (though some state departments and private organizations have risen to the challenge). For this and other reasons, the choice (or voluntary) aspect of charter schools must be preserved because many educators may never want to participate in such an endeavor and should not be forced to do so.
  • Charter schools provide new roles for teachers. Charter schools offer teachers a chance to work in autonomous and innovative schools, with many attempting to use new philosophical approaches, teaching methods, and assessment tools. Teachers also have the opportunity to become directly involved in all phases of school operations, from curriculum planning to management. That may be as far as many teachers want to go in expanding their roles. Some, however, may want to go further.Charter schools could open the door for teachers to become school “owners,” rather than employees, with an owner's chance to earn profits or build equity. Kolderie (1993) notes that groups of teachers in a cooperative or partnership arrangement could either contract with a sponsor or subcontract with a charter school management team to organize and run an instructional program at a charter school. As a professional group, these teachers would control curriculum, personnel, and financial decisions. Kolderie suggests that this arrangement would give teacher-owners a strong incentive to use innovative instructional methods and technologies and to modify existing patterns of expenditures. And, because these teachers would be their own employer, bargaining issues would be minimized or eliminated. Although this concept runs counter to current practice, growing support for charter or contract services makes it plausible.Such empowerment of individual schools and teachers, while hailed by many educators, introduces some perceived threats to teacher unions. An issue brief prepared by the National Education Association (1993) states that only “ under the right conditions, [italics added] charter schools could become change agents promoting new and creative ways of teaching and learning....” Two of these conditions are that all teachers be licensed practitioners and that district collective bargaining provisions remain applicable. In an ideal charter school situation, the organizers may desire these two conditions and make them a part of the charter, but they would not be mandated by statute.Teacher unions are also concerned that charter school provisions could become a “back door” for private school vouchers. Stuart (1994) notes that one reason the Minnesota Federation of Teachers lobbied against that state's charter school legislation is that it allowed private, nonsectarian schools to become public charter schools. These issues and the concern over the loss of collective bargaining power have caused unions to lobby against charter school legislation in many states.

Lessons from Charter Schools

What can we learn from those already working in charter schools? Start-up is one of the most time-consuming tasks, according to organizers and staff in several states. Many problems are similar to those that confront any new small business owner. First, organizers and staff must be prepared to translate their vision of the school into reality. This entails securing additional start-up funding (foundation grants or other contributions) and developing community contacts to help create the educational environment they envision and obtain appropriate facilities. Finally, they must constantly reevaluate their process and results, making adjustments as necessary. Activities such as these are challenging and result in longer-than-normal teacher and administrator workdays. The bottom line is that, while some may view these new tasks as stimulating, others may find implementing charter schools overwhelming. In short, charter schools are not for everyone.
However, even in the early stages, the charter school participants we interviewed made the following point clear: Those who believe in the charter school concept and can meet the challenging workload will reap rewards not possible in other schools. The tremendous emphasis on collaboration, alone, is a welcome change to many. In the words of Milo Cutter at the City Academy charter school in St. Paul (1994), a charter school is “the best opportunity for teamwork. It's a natural outlet for diversity and inclusion.”
Nevertheless, many questions remain: Will charter schools become just another fad, or will they successfully integrate a number of promising reform ideas? And if charter schools do succeed, will they dramatically change learning environments for a great number of students and teachers, or will they affect only those within their halls? It is too early to tell, but many educators, policymakers, and community members believe that charter schools represent a bold reform attempt that holds great promise.

Bierlein, L., and L. Mulholland. (February 1994). Charter School Update: Expansion of a Viable Reform Initiative. Tempe, Ariz.: Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Cutter, M. (April 28, 1994). Telephone conversation with author, St. Paul, Minn.

Hill, P. T. (January 1994). “Reinventing Urban Public Education.” Phi Delta Kappan 75, 5: 396–401.

Kolderie, T. (November 1993). “The States Begin to Withdraw the `Exclusive.'” Changing Schools 21, 3: 1–8.

Mulholland, L., and M. Amsler. (October 1992). The Search for Choice in Public Education: The Emergence of Charter Schools. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

National Education Association. (June 1993). “Are Charter Schools Better?” Issue Brief. Washington, D.C.: NEA.

Quinn, R. (August 1993). “Charter Schools: Now What?” CASB Agenda: 2.

Stuart, E. (April 1994). “Chartering a New Course.” State Government News: 8–11.

Walsh, M. (March 23, 1994). “3 Edison Plans Win Charter-School Backing in Mass.” Education Week XIII, 26: 13.

End Notes

2 For more in-depth descriptions of the legislation and progress in other charter school states, please contact the authors.

Louann A. Bierlein has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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