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18. Charter Schools

Charter schools operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Sometimes that liberty translates into failure, and sometimes it’s exploited by wealthy individuals and groups, but sometimes charter schools can move forward quickly and successfully into new paradigms. Limited only by the imagination and ability to deliver, charter schools represent a viable avenue of development for the future of education.

The charter establishing each such school is a performance contract that details the school’s mission, program, goals and methods of assessment. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor– usually a state or local school board– to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability. They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them.

According to the US Charter Schools Overview the intention of most charter school legislation is to:

  • Increase opportunities for learning and access to quality education for all students
  • Create choice for parents and students within the public school system
  • Provide a system of accountability for results in public education
  • Encourage innovative teaching practices
  • Create new professional opportunities for teachers
  • Encourage community and parent involvement in public education
  • Leverage improved public education broadly

People establish charter schools for a variety of reasons. The founders generally fall into three groups: grassroots organizations of parents, teachers and community members; entrepreneurs; or existing schools converting to charter status.

According to the first-year report of the National Study of Charter Schools, the three reasons most often cited to create a charter school are to:

  • Realize an educational vision
  • Gain autonomy
  • Serve a special population

Parents and teachers choose charter schools primarily for educational reasons–high academic standards, small class size, innovative approaches, or educational philosophies in line with their own. Some also have chosen charter schools for their small size and associated safety (charter schools serve an average of 250 students).

Erin Kotecki Vest, Director and Producer of Special Projects for BlogHer, Inc., blogged about her family’s reasons for pulling her two children out of public school and placing them in charter schools.

“My kids are bright and active,” she wrote. “And while my son was doing just fine academically at our neighborhood school, he was stressed. Conforming to the traditional setting did not suit him at all. In fact, it was sucking the life and creativity right out of him.”

She describes how her son struggled to keep still and quiet, ending up with “his heart and eyes…glazing over.”

Vest is clear in her post about the fact that she doesn’t fault her son’s teacher for recommending prescription medication to deal with the problem, but instead she put him into a charter school where, she says, he is now thriving without needing a prescription.

Attention grew around charter schools in the wake of the release of the controversial education documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”

““Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” doesn’t explore the deeper changes in American society that have led to this crisis,” The New York Times review, “Students Caught in the School Squeeze” stated, “The widening gap between rich and poor, the loosening of the social contract, the coarsening of the culture and the despair of the underclass.”

“For the combatants in the war over the future of education, of course, charter schools are…are among the conflict’s most brutal battlefields,” New York Magazine added to the dialogue. “Publicly funded but autonomously operated, accountable for results but largely free of government oversight and entirely free of union rules such as lockstep pay and lifetime teacher tenure, charters now serve more than 1.5 million students across the country. To reformers…they hold fantastic promise: of empowering principals, slicing through red tape, creating competition for mainstream public schools. But to critics, charters are a chimera—a faddish panacea that represents much of what’s wrong with…the ed-reform movement writ large.”

“Some fact-checking is in order,” wrote critic Diane Ravitch, “and the place to start is with [Superman’s] quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the ‘amazing results’ that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic….Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?”

Others have noted the consequences of wealthy investors with a loaded interest in education and charter schools.

With careful planning and a commitment to delivering on the vision, however, charter schools like Quest to Learn can break the pedagogical models shackling traditional counterparts to create stellar, relevant learning environments in which students can be taught to master core subject areas while at the same time gaining the skills they need to participate in a rapidly changing modern global economy.

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