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The Charter School Surge
By David W. Kirkpatrick (September 18, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         Schools in one form or another have a long history but the beginnings of the public school system in the United States are often traced to the Common Schools Act in 1834 in Pennsylvania.  For 150 years or more the model developed  then remained largely unchanged.  The box called a classroom in a bigger box called a school, ruled triumphant.
 
         What was termed "reform" was largely more of the same: more students, more money, more teachers, more money, more specialists, more money, more support staff, more money, more administrators, more money, more buildings, more money, more regulations, more money, more this and that and, of course, more money.
 
         Not until the 1980s did challenges to the one-best system appear.  One is homeschooling which is estimated to have grown from only 10,000 students in the nation in 1980 to as many as 2,000,000 students today.
 
         Beginning in 1990 some new approaches appeared on the scene.  One was a voucher plan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  This put into real, if somewhat limited form, a proposal economist Milton Friedman made in 1955.  Actually the idea has a long history in limited sections of the United States, especially Vermont where more than one-third of that rural state's communities lack either an elementary school, a secondary school, or both.  The communities choose instead to "tuition" their students to schools of their choice, not only outside of the community but outside the state.
 
         Tuition voucher program continue to be established, and to grow, but at a glacial pace.  Much more important for the present, and the foreseeable future, was the arrival of the charter school concept, in Minnesota.  From no schools, and obviously no students, in 1991there are now some 4300 such schools enrolling an estimated 1.3 million students.
 
         Note that these figures give an estimate of about 300 students per school.  Clearly when schools are designed by those who work in them,, and for parents/students who can select the one they attend, large numbers are avoided.
 
         And there could be many more enrollees if space permitted.  For example there are an estimated 11,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools in New Jersey, 17,000 in Texas, 26,000 in Pennsylvania, and 350-365,000 nationwide.  Even those staggering figures are misleading.
 
         For one thing, only 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter laws, the remaining ten do not so. There is thus no way to determine how many would apply to them.  And many of the states with charter laws have caps on how many can be created.  The limit, for example, is 215 in Texas with 210 in existence.  The remaining five slots will likely be filled shortly.
 
         Finally, with schools having fairly lengthy waiting lists, it's possible many do not sign up because of an anticipation near term additional openings may be few and/or that there won't be enough to accommodate their child.
 
         Some have criticized charter schools that are relatively traditional in their structure and curriculum, arguing they are supposed to be innovative.  The basic idea is one of freedom that charter schools may chart their own course, whether that course is the three R's or something else.
 
         And there is no shortage of "something else" in the charter movement.  In New Mexico, for example, a residential charter school for the arts is about to open, serving students from anywhere in the state.  Tuition is free, as with all charter schools.  Of necessity there will be a cost for room and board, which will be based on family income.
 
         Then there are the cyber schools or virtual schools, by whatever name.  Twenty seven thousand students "attend" such schools in Arizona alone with the largest such school enrolling 8,000 students, and another 2,600.  Nationwide a system known as K12, has 42,000 students in 17states.
 
         In New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed the school district, the opportunity to begin anew has resulted in virtually every school being a charter school.  Circumstances were different in Washington, DC, but the need to try something was so great that about 21,000 students are in charter schools and 42,000 in district schools.  Others benefit from a tuition voucher plan.
 
         A glimpse of the future?

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         Our public educational system is a monopoly founded on anti-intellectualism and bogus theories of learning. As such, real education has always been its enemy..."  P. 28, Edward Rauchut, "I Quit," pp 26-27, Teacher Magazine, February 1992

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

E-mail (tchrwrtr@aol.com)

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