The Challenge of Charter Schools

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Charter schools are now 10 years old, and the movement is still spreading. About 2,400 charter schools were in operation during the last school year. A handful of cities now find 15–20 percent of their kids enrolled in charters. Yet some of the wind is going out of the charter sails. Six challenges are paramount.

First, we see too little leadership in the charter movement. The entire concept was dismissed at the last national education summit, October 9–10, 2001, in New York. The White House rarely mentions charters, nor do Congressional leaders. Few governors tarry long on this subject—and many admit to frustration over “bad apples” in the charter barrel. There’s no coherent national voice explaining the charter school idea to Congress, the media, or other educators.

Second, although not large, the bad-apple problem is easily exploited by critics. Most states have a few charters that never should have been allowed to start and a few more that cannot sustain the pace. What to do? Too many states—instead of promptly replacing hapless schools with better ones—are slowing the whole charter enterprise and putting bureaucrats in charge of it. Because the top concern of bureaucrats is to fend off future problems, the red tape piles up.

Third, even without added rules and regulations, it is hard to start a charter school. The New York Times recently recounted an unsuccessful three-year effort by would-be school founders in the South Bronx, whose dream of starting an arts-oriented charter was stymied by state and city bureaucrats, facility woes, and a lack of start-up funds.

Fourth, charter enemies are relentless. Their favorite strategies are to keep numerical caps in place on the grounds that “this risky experiment hasn’t proven itself” while persuading policymakers (in the name of “ensuring accountability” or “leveling the playing field”) that charters must be subject to ever more of the same requirements as conventional public schools.

Fifth, charter advocates have not been smart enough about accountability, probably because they’re split on the subject. We find libertarians insisting that the marketplace is a sufficient accountability mechanism; dyed-in-the-wool public educators being swayed by “level playing field” claims despite the stultifying red tape that inevitably follows; and people resisting state standards and tests for the same reasons that other educators resist them.

Finally, the charter movement itself cannot decide whether it is a trade association obliged to defend every school that wears the charter label or an education reform movement responsible for ensuring that only good schools are so labeled.

These challenges are worth meeting. The promise of charter schools remains bright. The National Journal’s Jonathan Rauch recently profiled Nueva Esperanza Academy, a charter school serving Philadelphia’s Latino community and one of as many as 50 such schools being developed by the National Council of La Raza. The Academy is bringing low-income high school dropouts back into education. The school’s name means “New Hope,” which is how many charter advocates see their movement. But hope alone won’t get it successfully through another 10 years.