Vermonters for Better Education
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(05/05/00) There's a good chance the legislature will consider a school choice bill this week, one that is so modest that it is highly unlikely many people will feel its effects at all if it is passed. It only involves public high schools and little more than a handful of students per school being allowed to choose schools within their region.
Ironically, its consideration occurs during a week designed to draw attention to another school choice program that is more sweeping in its reform, more community-oriented, and more widely supported on a bipartisan basis elsewhere in the United States. May 1 through 5 has been designated National Charter Schools week by President Clinton.
Charter schools are schools started by community members - parents, educators, town leaders - and are open to all students, even those outside the district in which they are located. Charter schools traditionally receive funding through per pupil grants or tuitions paid by the sending districts. Thirty-six states now have charter school laws (11 of these states allow private schools to convert to charter status) and more than a quarter million children are enrolled in these schools across the nation.
What are the benefits of these laws? Charter schools offer accountability and autonomy to their originators, their administrators and their communities. They are often more flexible in making staffing and curriculum decisions. They are also directly accountable to the public because they would not exist without attracting a clientele - they have no "built in" customer base. No one is forced to go to a charter school because of a lack of other options.
Charter schools can be configured to target certain student populations or a particular mission. Charter schools have been set up to serve pregnant teens, at-risk students, children with learning disabilities, and to specifically "empower teachers." Several schools in the national "No Excuses" campaign that highlights high-poverty, high-performing institutions are charter schools.
Critics of charter schools, like critics of school choice programs in general, like to claim that charter schools cream off the best students and harm other public schools. This is not true. As is the case with private schools across the country, charter schools often offer more racially diverse classrooms than their public school counterparts, probably because they draw from wider geographic areas. Charter schools also do not attract all of an area's high achievers. In fact, it is often students and their parents who were struggling in the public schools who choose charter schools.
Charter schools, like other choice programs, often spur local public schools in their regions to more effectively monitor and improve their own quality. When they are no longer guaranteed a lock on most students in a region, public school administrators find their own creativity unlocked.
As one Arizona public school administrator said after his school lost students to charter schools, "The main theme that's coming across is that we have not been sensitive to the needs of parents." This administrator, by the way, is a supporter of charter schools and believes that they have created an incentive for him and his peers to "reflect…and reassess" what they are doing right and wrong.
In a rural state, charter schools can also offer some school districts a way to deal with changing demographics. Small schools in a district could keep their doors open if they could draw upon a student base outside their boundaries. More than five years ago, a small school in a very rural agricultural district of Minnesota faced closure due to consolidation. The administrator and teachers reconfigured the institution into a school of choice and it was able to continue serving students in the community and beyond. Similar stories can be told of rural schools in Colorado that faced closure but were able to transform themselves into charter schools that serve a wider region. At least one small rural school in Vermont faced closure years ago and wanted to reconfigure as a charter school to stay open. With no enabling legislation on the books, the school closed.
Research about charter schools shows some academic gains for students but tremendous parental satisfaction, perhaps one of the best indicators of quality given the fact that parents usually know what's best for their kids.
During National Charter School Week, it's a shame that Vermont, known for many other progressive programs, is refusing to embrace this reform that has garnered such strong bipartisan support in so many other places.