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Charter schools: Growing success or educational fad?

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Posted: Friday, June 25, 2004 10:00 pm

Fourteen years ago, parents had only a few options and little say in their child's education.

And then City Academy in St. Paul, Minn. opened for business.

The charter movement, which is now very much alive in Lodi, was born.

Minnesota became the first state to pass a law allowing the creation of charter schools. Charters are public schools - they cannot charge tuition, but they receive the daily state attendance allowance for each student in class - but escape most state and local regulations, including stringent building codes. Initially, only Minnesota's Department of Education could authorize the opening of charters.

However, California quickly followed in Minnesota's footsteps, passing its own charter law in 1992. California allowed individual school districts to authorize charters and in 1993, the San Carlos Charter Learning Center became California's first charter school.

Other states followed suit and charter schools began to pop up, scattered throughout the country. Parents now had another choice.

Some charters were progressive and focused on testing (or perfecting) innovative educational methods. Some charters - City Academy was one of them - focused on taking at-risk students and giving them an opportunity to succeed.

Some charters were started by teachers looking for a bit of freedom from the confinement of strict state and local standards on what you can and cannot teach. Some charters were built by parents who wanted more say in their child's education than their local school district would afford.

Some charters held classes in old recreation centers or unused district buildings. Some charters were simply transformed public schools - "conversions" they were called. Still others were built from the ground up, provided the funds were there.

Growth in the charter movement was sporadic, gradual and slow in the early years. By 1995, only 252 charter schools had popped up, serving more than 58,000 students, a report from the Center for Education Reform said. Then, as more states passed charter laws and more success stories cropped up around the country, the numbers grew.

By 2000, there were nearly 2,000 charter schools nationwide educating 430,000 students. In 2003, there were 2,695 charters and 684,000 charter students across the country. In California alone, there are currently 458 operating charter schools with 165,000 charter students, the Charter School Development Center said.

Today, with thousands of charters nationwide, hundreds across the state and three in or quite near to Lodi, charters have created a choice.

Fake charters?

Many early charters were started by parents and teachers. As one can imagine, building a new school from the ground up - finding a building, hiring teachers, creating a curriculum and dealing with a couple hundred children - is quite a challenge, even for a school district with a $211 million budget such as Lodi Unified. Don Shalvey, a California charter pioneer who helped pass the state legislation in 1992 and was behind the opening of San Carlos Charter Learning Center, said the people who jumped into creating their own charters in the 1990s learned just how difficult it was.

"The individual charters early on were led by parents with amazing tenacity and enthusiasm," Shalvey said. "But most of them didn't have enough business expertise."

Shalvey, who co-founded Aspire Public Schools with dot-com tycoon and Netflix, Inc. chief executive officer Reed Hastings in 1999, said two lessons were learned the hard way when the independent schools opened up.

"We learned that you can't do this with limited enrollment - you need about 300 kids to get a school going," he said. "Second, we learned that it's difficult to be a stand-alone school. You need a broad network of resources and expertise to have a solid base."

Shalvey said at least $400,000 is needed to start up a charter elementary school. More money is out there now, but Shalvey said the going was tough at first.

Priscilla Wohlstetter, the director of the University of Southern California's Center on Education Governance, said most early charters were conversions of public schools. She said many of those were charters run by school districts - a type of school she terms as "faux-charters."

"With the faux-charters, there's no financial freedom," Wohlstetter said. "Faux-charters are more likely to be larger than independent charters as well."

Mike Gillespie, the principal of Lodi Unified School District-run Joe Serna, Jr. Charter School on Oak Street in Lodi, said that despite being an affiliated school directly controlled by the school district, his school has the same freedom other charters enjoy.

"We have flexibility in how spend our money," Gillespie said.

Lodi Unified Superintendent Bill Huyett agreed.

"They have as much freedom as any other charter," Huyett said.

Gillespie also said his school of 200 students could not grow much, no matter what the district wanted or needed.

"This site can't grow past 300 kids," Gillespie said of the school that sits in what was only a few years ago a Baptist church. "There's no room."

Wohlstetter said the trend now is moving toward more start-up charters, which are likely to be smaller and independent of school districts, unlike their conversion counterparts. She agrees with Shalvey that support networks are needed for independent charters to succeed.

"When you have an organization there to help manage it, the charter is not an island," Wohlstetter said. "There can be shared resources and shared expertise."

Shalvey said that now charters come from two places - grassroots organizations and parents or superintendents.

Susan Nogan, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, said the motives behind starting charters vary.

Nogan also said that many charters lose their hard-pressing vision when its founders leave.

"You have this core of committed, energetic founders that leave the charter when their kids move on," she said. "Then the schools lose their energy and their vision."

Who's the boss?

One of the biggest controversies within the charter movement is over who should have the authority to authorize the creation of charters. In the early days in Minnesota, only the state Department of Education filled that role. These days, the University of Michigan, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ryder trucking company all operate charter schools.

Should local school boards control the authorization of charter schools, or should it be more open?

"California has very few authorizers, and there are no partnerships," Wohlstetter said. "California is more restrictive than most other states."

Andrew Rotherham, the director of the Public Policy Institute's 21st Century Schools Project and editor of education Web log Eduwonk.com, said that the Indianapolis model, where Mayor Bart Peterson has authorized the opening of 11 charter schools since 2002, is encouraging.

"The fundamental issue is that the authorizers must be able to be held democratically accountable," said Rotherham, who added that universities and other governmental bodies should be considered as well.

Lodi Unified Superintendent Bill Huyett said some degree of control is good if not essential.

"With loose regulation comes abuse. Boards of Education are elected by the public to regulate local education. To circumvent this is a bad thing."

Charters a compromise?

A constant but separate education debate revolves around school vouchers, which proponents say would create nearly ultimate choice in public schools. How does the move toward a voucher system affect the charter movement?

"A lot of people view that charters are a compromise to vouchers," Nogan said.

Wohlstetter more or less agrees, with a different spin.

"Charters came about to politically head off the voucher movement," said Wohlstetter. "It was a response to the growing sentiment of a need for choice."

Shalvey said he doesn't need see how a voucher program would help public education at all in California.

"I don't see vouchers in California as an aid," he said. "No one thinks it will increase the supply to kids."

Shalvey said he thinks having a strong network of private schools is important, though.

"A robust public school system and a robust private school system would be best," he said.

But with charters providing a free choice to parents who might otherwise abandon public school and enroll in private school, is there resentment between tuition-based schools and charters?

"There's a little bit of that," Shalvey said. "Public school choice really gets people worked up on all sides."

Wohlstetter said there have no studies on how many would-be private school students charters take away; she anticipates the effect charters have on private schools is related to location.

"Evidence is mostly anecdotal at this point," she said.

Shalvey thinks the fact that private schools are closing more frequently these days may lend credence to the thought that charters are taking away students.

"The proof point around this has been the number of closing parochial schools - it's the economy versus the parents' ability to earn tuition," Shalvey said.

He thinks the choice is a good thing for parents that don't have currency fluttering down from their oak tree's branches.

"Save it for college!" Shalvey said with a broad smile. "If you can trust that public schools can do what's needed, you can save a lot of money!"

Accountability vs. freedom

"Accountability" has never been more frequently heard buzzword in California public education circles than in these days of failing test scores, failing schools and failing students.

Combined with the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act - which draws fire in one way or another from every political party for either being too oppressive to schools or too underfunded to be effective - accountability is on every educator's mind. Huyett thinks charters are held to more scrutiny than other public schools.

"It's an entrepreneurial spirit - 'perform or you'll be shut down,'" Huyett said.

Nogan agrees and thinks the basis of the charter movement forces those schools to be watched closer.

"The deal that charters strike is that they agree to be held to higher standards in exchange for greater autonomy," Nogan said.

Wohlstetter said that while accountability is important in education, charters aren't given the tools necessary to meet standards. She said that when state assessment tests are taken by all students, they are sent back to the test-maker to be graded and the returned to the school district. Charter schools have to pay the districts to obtain the test results for individual students and then pay for the detailed and complicated analysis of the results. Many charters don't have the cash flow necessary to do this, Wohlstetter said.

"It seems astounding that schools must be held accountable for performance without having the information," she said.

Wohlstetter's Center on Education Governance is creating California's first searchable database of information about charter schools - financial data, staffing levels and student performance data - to help charters out with this problem. The project, called "Multiple Measures of Accountability for California Charter Schools," will be subscription-based and will include a compendium of "best practices" proven to work in charter schools.

California charters are only good a maximum of five years. At the end of a charter period, a renewal must be sought by the school.

Monica Plageman, one of the founding teachers at Aspire's University Public School, said that monitoring performance is important, but it's not the only thing to look at.

"The kids' teeth don't all fall out the same day in the same way," Plageman said. "They don't learn like that either."

The charter movement's future

So, now that charters are here, what's next?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle and created by the Microsoft, Inc. founder and his wife, has donated more than $1 billion over the past four years to groups working to increase the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students and preparing every student for college and the work force. The foundation has been one of the major funders of Shalvey's group.

"We think he's doing an excellent job," said Tom Vander Ark, the foundation's executive director for education. "We're donating millions of dollars to help create more Aspires."

Despite grand nationwide plans for the expansion of the charter movement, Huyett wants charter school growth in Lodi to remain gradual.

"We want to grow charters slowly," said Huyett, who added that the largely hated year-round calendar most Lodi Unified schools were previously on created the huge demand for another choice in the area. All Lodi Unified schools are scheduled to be on modified traditional calendars by 2006.

"When year-round is done away with, we'll see if there's still the demand," Huyett said.

Shalvey said he expects 5,000 charters nationwide by 2015 and anticipates more organizations like his own to pop up. He also said he expects mayors to open more schools in urban areas, like Bart Peterson, the mayor of Indianapolis. Peterson has authorized 11 charter schools in the city, the first of which opened in 2002.

"Opening charter schools has gone from outrageous to ambitious," Shalvey said.

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