Finding the Right Fit: America's Charter Schools Get Started

Charter schools are among the fastest-moving and most promising reform strategies in American public education. More than 20 states have enacted enabling legislation,and almost 250 such schools were in operation in 1995-96, with as many as 400 likely next year.

A charter school is a new breed of public school, freed from most state and local regulation for a period of time (typically five years) in return for a solemn pledge—written into its "charter," a sort of contract with the community or state—to produce educational success in its students. Such a school is open to the public, financed by the public and accountable to public authorities, and free to run itself according to its own distinctive educational vision.

No two charter schools are alike. Some are brand-new, others are former public (and occasionally private) schools that take this route to independence. Some were begun by teachers, others by parents, still others by nonprofit organizations and commercial firms. They come in many flavors—big and little, traditional and progressive, schools for gifted artists and schools for ex-juvenile offenders.

The oldest charter schools have been around for just over three years, and itÕs too soon to be sure what fruit they will ultimately bear. ItÕs not too soon, however, to examine these saplings as they take root and begin to grow. That's what we have been trying to do, beginning with more than 35 schools in 7 states that we visited during the past year.

The good news: Individualized schooling

In our travels we have found the charter world a varied one, sprinkled liberally with different educational philosophies and curriculums. We do not necessarily agree with every one we have encountered. But we have seen none that seemed outside the pale of defensible, and in many respects familiar, educational thought and practice. We have stumbled on no witchcraft schools or Klan schools, for example. The most unusual we have spotted are a couple of "virtual" schools that use modern technology to instruct students, including "home schoolers," who are not on the premises.

What distinguishes charter schools is not the originality of their educational vision but their uncommon commitment to it. Only teachers who share a school's particular approach are hired- -meaning that 100 percent of the staff really wants to do what the school says it will do—and only parents who want that approach enroll their children. Both parents and teachers sometimes find that they have made a mistake and quickly move on. Some student and staff turnover in the first few weeks is not unusual.

Excellent teachers flock to charter schools. Some accept lower pay. Most want no involvement with the teachersÕ unions. Some states require charter school teachers to be certified; some do not. Our impression is that most are certified even when not required by law, but that those who are not are nevertheless well qualified by virtue of other relevant experience and training. We encountered, for example, an astronomer with a doctorate from MIT, young people from the "Teach for America" program, and long-time veterans of private schools. Some teachers are "square pegs" people with unconventional backgrounds and variegated careers who do not fit in the round holes of conventional schools, who crave the chance to work with colleagues, parents, and children who share their philosophy, and who are willing to make trade-offs, including minimal facilities and modest pay, in return for personal and professional fulfillment.

Most charter schools have small classes. Days and years are long, though, at least for staff. Teachers must be jacks-of-all-trades. They clean their own classrooms (and sometimes shovel the walks), plan the curriculum, buy the materials, and serve as guidance counselors and social workers. Although charter schools do not want to pay lower wages, their cramped budgets, their commitment to small classes, and their emphasis on high-quality instructional materials mean that most simply do not have the wherewithal to offer fatter salaries. Still, except for those in the most remote locations and those that opened on very short notice, the charter schools we visited were inundated with candidates for teaching positions. "For an educator," one teacher explained, "it's like you died and went to heaven."

Many students at charter schools are square pegs too. Contrary to the predictions of some critics, the families who are flocking to these schools are not the most fortunate. Disproportionately the children being served are minority and disabled youngsters—those who were not thriving in "regular" schools. As one student remarked to us, "The people in this school really care about what I learn. At my other school, it was easy to hang back and do nothing; no one really pushed you to try harder."

In the six states with the most charter schools, minority youngsters, who make up 31 percent of pupils in regular public schools, comprise 40 percent of charter school enrollment (17 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Native American, 3 percent Asian). Numbers are not available yet for disabled, handicapped, and special needs youngsters, but a spring 1995 national survey by the Education Commission of the States found that about half the charter schools then operating were designed to serve "at risk" youngsters—disabled pupils, boys and girls in trouble with the law, dropouts, and others who were not succeeding in regular schools. Whether or not they set out to do so, the schools we have visited are drawing many families of children who have special needs, even if they have not been formally classified as "special education" pupils.

Parents of children in charter schools are highly committed to the schools. A few schools we have visited have "formal" requirements for parents. The most demanding school requires 20 hours a semester of volunteer work, roughly an hour a week. But the schools are remarkably inventive and flexible in finding ways for busy parents, or other family members or friends, to fulfill their commitments, including evening and weekend opportunities. And many charter schools benefit from generous parent participation—and sweat equity—without requiring it. The great majority of those we have visited receive hundreds of hours a week of time and labor volunteered by family members, friends, staff, even students. Many parents (not all) also devote much time and attention to their children's homework and school projects.

Whether parent-initiated, teacher-started, or otherwise, every charter school we have visited owes its existence to a handful of people who made almost superhuman efforts to get it off the ground or converted to charter status. We cannot be sure what will happen as time passes, people replace one another, and—perhaps—energies flag. But the schools we have visited during their second and third years of operation appear to have sustained remarkable levels of commitment, albeit of a less frenzied sort.

Many charter schools also enjoy unusually intensive partnerships with business and community groups. In Arizona one charter school operates in partnership with the juvenile corrections system, one is sponsored by a Native American tribe, and one by a boys-and-girls club. One school in Minnesota operates in partnership with the municipal parks department, one in Michigan with a fast-food company, and one in Colorado with an office park developer who is financing its new building. The variety of groups and organizations willing to get involved in this approach to public education is impressive.

All but a few of the schools we have visited operate in crowded, sometimes temporary, buildings. Commonly they lack auditoriums, gyms, playgrounds, well-equipped labs, media centers, and lunchrooms. Making them usable at all has required immense improvisation and a lot of cleanup and fixup work by parents, staff, and students. Yet many schools in these unlovable quarters have waiting lists and many have attracted pupils from private schools, some with elaborate facilities.

Though they are small, most charter schools emphasize a strong core program for everyone. But they do not have a lot of electives, athletic programs, or elaborate extracurricular activities. Because teachers are expected to meet the needs of each student, the schools do not employ many specialized noninstructional staff members, nor do they have pull-out programs for certain youngsters. Most appear to have been able to get essential "business" services—accountants, supplies, materials, insurance, food services, transportation—although some dispense with one or both of the latter two, and sometimes a group of charter schools has banded together to get certain of these services. Being small is a problem especially in participating in federal and state aid programs, such as Federal Title I, special education, and bilingual education, that bring extra resources but that, in larger schools and school systems, are the full-time jobs of specialized "coordinators." Neither federal nor state policy has flexed to accommodate the circumstances of charter schools.

Where improvement is needed

Charter schools are as much small businesses as they are educational institutions, yet rare is the school whose staff is adept at both. Finance, marketing, accounting, procurement, personnel management, complex logistical planning, and compliance with sundry local and state rules can cripple a school with an outstanding curriculum and terrific teaching staff. And even schools with good business managers may run afoul of zoning restrictions, fire marshal inspections, and extensive state reporting requirements. Ideally, a charter school should be the product of a diverse team, some of whom are savvy in these noneducational domains.

A lot of charter schools start too quickly, sometimes because their charters do not arrive until summer. Often the late start is due to prolonged political battles over charters or to frenzied competition to get one of the few charters that state law permits. But sometimes charter planners simply fail to anticipate how much they have to do and how long it takes. After scrambling for facilities, staff, and students, they sometimes find they have not taken enough pains with curriculum, materials, training, orientation, and the logistical hassles of running a school. The (few) schools that do not actually open their doors until a year or so after they are approved seem to have been able to do a better job. But charter schools receive no significant public funding until they have students, so prolonged planning may be possible only where private resources (or sweat equity) can be tapped.

Charter founders are dedicated, committed, and tenacious people, sometimes with a burr under their saddle. Particularly when they are noneducators, they sometimes have difficulty turning over the reins to the educators they hire to lead and staff the school. Sometimes they do a bad job of selecting the first group of educators. Founders need to impose more discipline on themselves, and the people they employ need to insist on some ground rules in advance.

A private school that converts to charter status or a private organization that runs a charter school can also run into unexpected problems related to being a public school. Such a school must be prepared, for example, for open-meeting laws for governing boards, competitive procurement processes, due process procedures for staff, and curriculum issues such as the need to teach the state core and the prohibition of even mild forms of religiosity.

State action needed

Charter schools cannot solve all their start-up problems themselves. Some require state policy action.

Without doubt, the heaviest cross charter schools bear today is the absence of capital funding, access to conventional school facilities, and start-up money to cover equipment and planning. No state has solved this problem. Many charter schools have operating budgets that, pupil for pupil, are smaller than those of conventional public schools. The lack of capital funding means that, with few exceptions, charter schools are having to make do with considerably less money. On top of that, they must usually rent a building, furnish and equip it, and recruit and train staff with no (or very meager) funds flowing until their pupils arrive—or even later. Michigan's school funding year, for example, does not begin until October.

Most legislatures have exempted their charter schools from provisions regulating class size, class time, and curricular sequence, but even in states with relatively strong charter laws, schools find they are subject to sundry other requirements, such as procurement and fiscal accounting systems, that nobody considered beforehand. Even basic safety and health requirements sometimes turn out to be inscrutable—or uncommonly hard to comply with. On the education side, although charter schools typically have more flexibility with respect to staffing, resource allocation, and curriculum, they must nearly always participate in state testing programs and meet state graduation requirements.

Except in a few jurisdictions where most charter schools are sponsored by the state itself, such as Massachusetts and Arizona, or by universities, such as Michigan, people seeking charters must convince local school boards to approve their proposals. The political battles can be intense. Even charter schools that are ultimately sponsored by the local board frequently wind up in a strained (if not openly hostile) relationship with it.

Only a few states are developing thoughtful and well-formed plans for evaluating their charter school programs. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the sorry condition of most state standards-assessment-accountability-evaluation systems. But the problem is particularly acute for charter schools, whose whole point is to deliver better results in return for greater freedom. Policymakers will want to know whether this is actually happening, and it is not unreasonable for them to expect hard evidence. Moreover, decisions about renewing or terminating individual charters, allowing schools to grow, and letting them open branches or reproduce themselves all should flow from evidence, not just reputation, connections, or evocative rhetoric. Test scores may not be the best indicator of a charter school's success—how many people want to attend it or work in it are powerful "marketplace" signals that also warrant attention— but states (and individual charter schools) need to be better prepared to agree on the evidence and criteria and then make such judgments accordingly.

We expect some charter schools to fail, possibly even soon. Some will fail for educational reasons, but most failures will be a result of economic and business difficulties. (Most new small businesses fail.) In the abstract, the failures can be taken as positive signs of education reform—true accountability. But the failures will also mean that some children will find themselves stranded mid-year (or shortly before graduation) without their school. And we have not found a single state with a well-formed plan for dealing with these contingencies. Nor are most states able to monitor schools and furnish early warnings of trouble or help a shaky school solve its problems and thus avert disaster.

Key recommendations

A charter school should have full control over its staff selection, including exemption from certification rules for employees, complete authority over compensation and terms of employment, and exemption from district-level personnel policies and collective-bargaining agreements. Teacher unions, local school boards, colleges of education, and other charter opponents will doggedly oppose these exemptions. But compromise here is the surest way to strangle an infant charter school program in its cradle.

States should develop and fund a charter-school loan fund or "revolving" fund to advance start-up resources to charter school developers at low or zero interest. Good-sized loans on easy terms would help charter schools in their start-up phase more than the small grants that some states now provide.

Such a loan fund could also provide "mortgages" to charter schools that want to buy or build a facility. Minor changes in state law could also make charters more attractive to private lenders. One or two states have made imaginative use of "land banks" and programs for recycling unused public buildings. Perhaps some form of bonding authority can be made available to charter schools. A "rolling" charter period that allows a (successful) school to plan and make commitments five years or so ahead would also be comforting to lenders. Charter schools should not be given more money in toto. But they should be helped to get, on reasonable terms, from public or private sources, the capital needed for facilities and major purchases on the understanding that they will eventually pay for them from their operating budget.

At the outset many charter schools wanted to have as little as possible to do with their local school system and state education agency. However, we see a need for the state to ensure that all its charter schools are following essential provisions of state law, to satisfy itself that no egregious educational or fiscal malpractice is under way, and to collect ongoing demographic and evaluative data. None of this needs to be heavy-handed, and it need not necessarily be done by the state education department, but some entity ought to bear this responsibility. We have seen (and heard about) some dubious proposals and inferior schools, and we believe that the marketplace is a necessary but insufficient check on these.

A charter school's educational effectiveness and fiscal probity can be assured without many of the input- and service-oriented rules and reports charters must comply with today. In general, all a state really needs to know about a charter school is the following. Is it doing what it said it would? Is it obeying basic health, safety, and civil rights laws? Are its students learning? Are its public funds being spent for legitimate purposes? And is there reason to believe that it is well enough managed that there will still be a school for its students to attend next month and next year?