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Charter Schools: A School
Reform That Works
By David W. Kirkpatrick (December 13, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
From no charter schools in the United States before the first one opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992, today there are an estimated 4,200 with 1.2 million students in the forty states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia with charter school laws.
As Andy Smarick notes in Education Next, seven states have nearly two-thirds of all charter schools. At the other extreme, the ten states with no charter law have no charter schools. An average of 335 charter schools have opened in each of the past five years.
Leading the movement is California with nearly 700 charter schools, one of every six in the nation. They enroll 240,000 students, 20% of the national charter total. A record total of 103 schools are expected to open this year, eclipsing the former mark of 84 set in 2005.
More significantly, a number of school boards in California are coming to realize the potential advantages to them which come from being able to establish charter schools. Many California school boards are not only willing to grant charters they are increasingly moving to convert their own schools. This contrasts with much of the nation where school boards in general, and the teacher unions in particular, continue to do what they can to slow the growth of the charter movement, if not halt it entirely. They win a skirmish here and there but it should be clear that the size of the charter movement and the speed of its ongoing growth indicate its continuing success is assured.
Charter startups outnumber conversions by three to one but that is still a significant ratio when compared to most situations elsewhere. School officials are coming to recognize they can hold, or attract, students with the advantages charter schools can offer. Campbell Union superintendent Johanna VanderMolen has said, in the San Jose Mercury News, "There's more flexibility in state funding, and fewer rules that bind us." Granting a charter, or arranging for a conversion, still leaves the school board with the overall authority to direct school operations but frees them from the need, or the temptation, to engage in micro-management.
It also makes it much easier to close a charter school if necessary, something that is virtually impossible with conventional schools. While, as noted, there are 4,200 charter school currently, it is estimated that somewhat more than 500 either didn't get off the ground or were subsequently closed for various reasons. It's interesting that the critics, who don't want the schools in the first place, are sometimes quick to cite such closings as failures when, in fact, it is one of the strengths of the movement. Ineffective schools should close. Doing so also means the average quality of charter schools will gradually grow, something notably lacking in conventional schooling.
Smarick looks forward to the day when all schools will be charter schools. He suggests that day will be hastened by concentrating resources where charters are most common. That is happening to some extent already. In New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina wiped out so much of the school system that it was essentially necessary to start anew, 57% of the students today are in charter schools, the greatest concentration in the nation. Charter enrollment is 27% in both Dayton, Ohio and Washington, D.C.; 20% in Kansas City, Missouri; and 18% in Toledo, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan.
Finally, although some object, Education Management Organizations (EMOs) are growing. Eight of them, some for-profit, some nonprofit, now operate 425 schools: Edison Schools, 157; KIPP, 57; Imagine Schools, 52; White Hat Management, 50; Big Picture Company, 44; EdVisions, 27; Aspire Public Schools, 21; and Charter Schools, USA, 19.
This growth, though rapid, has fallen short of demand. A common feature of charter schools is a waiting list. Smarick says there are 27,000 such waiting students in Pennsylvania alone; 19,000 in Massachusetts and 12,000 in New York. One school in Apple Valley, California not only has a waiting list of 3,000 potential students but among them are unborn children for as far ahead as the class of 2026.
And none of these figures include potential students where there are no charter schools.
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"There is no road block or obstacle to slow the growth of charter schools in the near future." -- Leah O'Donnell, a director at Eduventures, a consulting firm in Boston. muckety.com, October 27, 2007
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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
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