Civic entrepreneurs will be critical to the success of these fledgling independent public schools
A year ago, the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal urged Americans to "give smarter" and to support the community-based, results-oriented organizations that have the greatest impact on people and neighborhoods. In its report, Giving Better, Giving Smarter, the commission concluded that philanthropy must cultivate a new kind of giver—the "civic entrepreneur"—if it is to invest its money and time in ways that make a palpable difference in the lives of those in need.
Civic entrepreneurs build vibrant community institutions. They are as exacting in their giving and volunteering as they are in selecting their family doctor, buying a house, or choosing a college for their children. Their philanthropy is strategic, more like a long-term investment than a one-time gift. They tackle specific problems in their own communities by clearing paths to self-reliance and opportunity. They are willing to back bold new solutions, but they insist that civic enterprises remain accountable and achieve results.
Civic entrepreneurs need not be super-rich. Millions of ordinary people give money to community institutions or volunteer their time. Our task here is to suggest just a few of the ways in which civic entrepreneurs can play a crucial role in fostering one of the best examples of such community organizations: charter schools.
A charter school is an independent public school freed from most bureaucratic hassles in return for producing superior results. If it delivers those results—for the same money as "regular" public schools, or less—and succeeds in attracting students, it gets to keep its charter and remain open. If it fails, it risks institutional death from the loss of either its charter or its students.
It’s a tantalizing idea, and a popular one, judging from the length of the waiting lists at most of the nation’s 1,000-plus charter schools, the frequency with which new schools appear, and the eagerness of many states to pass charter-school legislation. In a sphere of American life too fond of faddish "innovation," charter schools represent a genuine alternative to the status quo. At their best, they hold out the promise of many benefits: They give freer rein to creative, entrepreneurial, motivated educators; they welcome and encourage more involvement by parents; they subject competing teaching methods and curricula to the judgment of education consumers; they spur conventional public schools to improve their performance; and they offer a diverse set of students a safe learning environment led by educators committed to achievement.
Furthermore, as charter schools help us reinvent education, they help us reinvigorate civil society in America. They are community-based learning centers shaped by shared needs, priorities, and expectations. These expectations create moral norms and values that permeate these new schools. Charter schools offer educators the opportunity to create new professional communities, freed from centralized micromanagement and run according to a set of shared educational precepts. Finally, charter schools eschew rigid contracts with teachers’ unions in favor of employment arrangements that value initiative, entrepreneurship, and results.
Our experience with charter schools suggests, however, that their success and continued proliferation are hardly assured. They need a lot of help if they are to flourish as genuine options for more than a handful of American children. There are a thousand ways in which civic entrepreneurs can help charter schools. For the purposes of this article, however, we are addressing our suggestions to a particular subset of civic entrepreneurs: those individuals and organizations best able to nurture fledgling charter schools with financial support and technical expertise.
Like any new venture, charter schools encounter their share of start-up problems: bureaucratic red tape, a dearth of facilities, cash-flow gaps, personnel problems, unpredictable demand, and skimpy materials. Even with good planning, the first year is usually grueling, and the second year brings fresh challenges. Without the help that only civic entrepreneurs can provide, some will surely falter, while others will take longer than necessary to prove their worth.
We have identified four critical needs that civic entrepreneurs can help satisfy: start-up capital and facilities, technical expertise, protection from hostile regulators, and effective accountability systems.
1. Start-Up Capital
If charter schools are to be an option for a significant number of families, it’s obvious that there must be many more of them. Yet the barriers to entry are high. It’s risky, costly, and onerous to bring a charter school into being. No, it shouldn’t be too easy to start a new school. But today it’s thoroughly daunting. The higher the barriers to entry, the fewer the people intrepid enough to start a charter school or enroll their children in one.
By far the most difficult barrier is access to capital: acquiring a building; refurbishing, furnishing, and equipping it; obtaining books and other instructional materials.
As public institutions, charter schools are entitled to public funding in proportion to the number of students they enroll. State laws authorizing charter schools, however, typically leave two financial hurdles for start-ups. First, despite the urgent expense of equipping and staffing a facility, the initial public funds typically do not flow until after the school year begins. Second, state laws provide for public funding only of the schools’ operating expenses, not of their facilities or other capital needs. The schools have no access to bonds or other forms of public borrowing. Private vendors regard them as poor credit risks, since they have little collateral and their flow of operating dollars is assured only for the term of their charter, which rarely lasts more than five years and sometimes just two or three. "Without private help," says Mark Kushner, the principal of a San Francisco charter school for 180 ninth- and 10-graders, "we wouldn’t be here."
Civic entrepreneurs can help charter schools get started by assisting with the acquisition of facilities, equipment, and materials. Here are suggestions on how to do that, along with examples of what’s been done.
Provide direct support. Through outright grants or access to borrowed capital on reasonable terms, civic entrepreneurs can help charter schools obtain the wherewithal to begin. The Fenton Avenue Charter School, in Los Angeles, for example, received grants totaling $164,000 from the Riordan Foundation to purchase new high-tech equipment and computer software. This purchase became a magnet for financing partnerships with Educational Management Group and General Telephone Electronics worth nearly $1.2 million. These partnerships have supplemented Fenton’s educational program with computer software, multimedia computers in every classroom, a fiber-optic cable network, and a closed-circuit TV channel that is unique among California elementary schools.
In Texas, the Financial Foundation for Charter Schools has secured more than $3.5 million from local businesses and banks to help charter schools with startup costs. More than 25 schools have applied for these loans.
Support for facilities is less common but now growing. For example, the Ball Foundation of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has entered into an innovative agreement with a real-estate developer, Continental Homes of Arizona, to build Ball-operated charter schools in three Continental communities around the Sunshine State. The firm is selling Ball the land at cost, and the foundation will pay for buildings. These schools will also function as community centers, including adult education and after-school care. The foundation has also provided a grant of $221,000 (mostly for facility renovations) to a group in Chandler, Arizona, that wants to open a Ball Charter School. In Denver, several foundations and business groups have raised more than $4 million to rehabilitate a historic school building for a new charter school.
Create a financing authority. Like other public entities, charter schools can benefit from using either public or private financing authorities to build or renovate facilities. Such an outfit may secure bond-financing on favorable terms, pool loans to several charter schools to reduce the risk to lenders, or furnish a revolving loan fund of privately raised dollars. A group of D.C.-based philanthropists and investors have launched a nonprofit venture called the Charter School Development Corporation. Supported by private money, its mission is to provide both early working capital and capital for school facilities and equipment. It wants to create a foundation partnership for pooling funds to help guarantee construction bonds. Ultimately, it hopes to develop a model for a nationwide program. Says program director Danny Rose, "Many banks are hesitant about approving credit for charter schools, but the risk level of many charter schools is better than a lot of small businesses."
The Prudential Foundation began a $10-million revolving fund so that New Jersey charter schools can borrow money for start-up expenses as early as seven months before the school opens. (The money may not be used for buildings and must be re-paid within a year or two.) It offers an interest rate between 2.5 and 5 percent, depending upon the school’s collateralization.
Public dollars can also sometimes be leveraged in this way. For example, Chicago’s public-school system provided $2 million to the Illinois Facilities Fund to create a revolving loan fund for charter-school facilities, equipment, and start-up expenses. So far, six schools have received help this way, including three that would have folded without it. A North Carolina program called Self Help channels both public and private dollars to its Community Facilities Fund, which helps charter schools acquire and renovate facilities, lease equipment, and meet other start-up needs. So far, it has supplied loans and working capital to five charter schools two of which would have closed without this help.
Donate or lease property. A former parochial school, an unused warehouse, or part of a shopping mall can be turned into a terrific site for a charter school. Carole Little and her business partner, Leonard Rabinowitz, donated a $6.8-million former designer-clothing factory to the Accelerated Charter School, a facility for low-income children in South Central Los Angeles. The site has five buildings (totaling 200,000 square feet), some of which will be remodeled as school buildings. The gift is a godsend to a school with 170 kids enrolled and another 900 on the waiting list. Rabinowitz also serves on a panel that has promised to undertake a $50-million fundraising effort over the next two years to aid the school and establish a teacher-training center for the school district.
Civic entrepreneurs can raise capital for charter schools in other ways. They can prod public authorities and community development agencies to unlock mothballed buildings for use as charter schools; they can lobby individual philanthropists, local foundations, companies, and nonprofit groups (especially youth service groups, universities, and professional organizations) to support these schools; and they can help with fundraising campaigns.
2. Technical Assistance
How do charter schools develop the leadership and expertise they need to flourish? Even the best-intentioned founders often lack crucial know-how. They may, for example, have terrific ideas about education but have no clue about the complex financial side of charter operations. Or they may know a lot about business but next to nothing about curriculum and testing. A successful charter school must master a bewildering array of issues, including curriculum development, contract negotiation, liability protection, educational theory, governance structure, personnel policy, facility management, academic assessment, and budgeting, among others.
In the near term, schools need an instant source of the expertise they lack. Over the long run, the charter movement urgently needs to augment its supply of people with both the know-how and the desire to create and lead successful schools. Today’s would-be charter leaders have no training centers, no clear "apprenticeship" route, and no clearinghouse for expertise. Civic entrepreneurs can help those who are already interested in creating charter schools—and boost the supply of such people for tomorrow. They can, for example:
Supply training and technical assistance. Civic entrepreneurs can underwrite centers for training and technical assistance that help charter schools anticipate or solve the pitfalls of start-up and operation or that prepare individuals to establish or work for charter schools. These centers can also assess a school’s organizational strengths and weaknesses during on-site management reviews, research policy issues, brief legislators, educate the news media, and raise money for individual schools. Creating such technical assistance centers has been a common form of support for the charter movement, though much more is still needed, especially in states and communities that are new to the charter idea.
The Pioneer Institute’s Charter Schools Re-source Center assists schools in Massachusetts. The center publishes a handbook on developing curriculum, managing enrollment, assessing results, and handling a budget. The center also helps schools raise funds from private sources to pay for facilities and other start-up costs; issues annual research reports on the status of the state’s charter schools; and keeps state legislators informed on how charter schools are working. The center’s work is supported by individual donors, foundation grants, and an organization of Bay State business leaders called CEOs for Fundamental Changes in Education.
The St. Paul and Minneapolis foundations have formed a partnership to launch a new resource center, the Twin Cities Charter Schools Project, within the University of Minnesota’s Center for School Change. The center provides technical assistance in the form of workshops, consultants, and networking opportunities to nearly 20 charter-school groups in the Twin Cities, particularly in financial and legal issues. The foundations backing the center want to deploy the charter idea as a community development strategy in low-income neighborhoods.
The charter-school movement
needs to augment its supply of people
with the know-how and the desire to
create and lead successful schools.
The Charter Schools Development Center, housed at California State University in Sacramento, provides charter-school directors and boards with comprehensive guidance on starting up and operating charter schools. It’s particularly known for its how-to guides and its intensive and rigorous "boot camp" workshops for starting up, managing, and financing charter schools. Supported mainly by private foundations, the center estimates it has helped half of California’s charter schools so far.
The New Jersey Institute for School Innovation, a nonprofit coalition of corporate CEOs and leading foundations, helped create the Charter School Resource Center of New Jersey. The center has supplied all of New Jersey’s 39 charter schools with guidance on funding and legal issues as well as opportunities to network with more experienced charter-school leaders. It is now receiving support from more than a half dozen foundations in New Jersey and New York.
The Charter Friends National Network, based in St, Paul, Minnesota, is researching a "consumer’s guide" to promising models for facilities financing. Similar projects are planned for "governance" issues that charter schools face, for special education, and for accountability issues.
Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), a group of Chicago business leaders seeking to advance the cause of local education reform, has established itself as a major incubator of charter schools. It has been particularly helpful to prospective groups trying to raise seed money and navigate the Windy City’s tough charter-approval process. "LQE provided us with a great deal of help with grants and research," says Michele Smith, the director of a technology-oriented charter school in west Chicago, at a critical point when "we did not have the knowledge or the time" to raise funds alone.
The Morris and Gwendlyn Cafritz Foundation of Washington, D.C., provided the local Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation with $200,000 for operating support to start charter schools in D.C. The funds supported a successful application to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for a grant to convert unoccupied government offices into two new charter schools.
Some foundations directly support charter schools or groups that want to create such schools. For example, through the Fisher Family Foundation, Donald and Doris Fisher of San Francisco (founders of the Gap clothing chain) will give $25 million to groups in the Bay Area that wish to become Edison charter schools. The money will help pay for the schools’ start-up costs. The Texas-based Challenge Foundation and the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation both support individual charter schools, particularly in the areas of curriculum and staff development.
Donate services. Business owners can loan employees from their firms—or recruit others to do so, or pay for consultants—to help individuals start charter schools or work with school operators to train the people they need. For example, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce Business Round-table for Education assembles a group of consultants three times a year to assist a consortium of 15 local charter schools. It pays for—and enlists those who will donate—advisers on financial, legal, and management issues, among others. The Colorado Lawyers Committee recruits attorneys and law firms to provide help pro bono for charter applicants, including writing proposals and assisting those whose charter requests are rejected and then appealed to the state. (They are often successful.)
Support professional development. Civic entrepreneurs can provide scholarships, fellowships, and other "mentoring" relationships to incubate the future creators of charter schools. For example, they can fund site visits to successful schools that can serve as role models for others. San Diego’s Business Roundtable for Education subsidizes the expenses of school employees to attend an annual statewide conference on professional skills. It also links principals and members of school budget committees with mentors from the business world.
In addition, civic entrepreneurs can serve on the boards of existing charter schools and on committees exploring the creation of new ones, and they can urge corporate training centers to open up to charter-school personnel.
3. Safeguarding Freedom
Charter schools have myriad political foes who do their utmost to prevent enabling legislation from being enacted in the first place. If they can’t stymie the movement as a whole, they strive to keep charter schools few and weak. One favorite strategy is to regulate them to death, or at least into conformity with conventional public schools. Insofar as they succeed, charter schools lose their essential raison d’être. The basic bargain is freedom for results. Yet the education system balks at giving these schools real freedom, so the danger of re-regulation is omnipresent.
The danger arises from several sources: bureaucratic creep, interest groups that prefer the status quo, and scandal and catastrophe. Anything that goes wrong in any charter school in the land leads someone somewhere to say, "We must develop new procedures and safeguards to ensure that such a thing never happens again." Gradually, inexorably, the regulations and procedures accumulate.
Charter schools have myriad political
Foes who strive to keep them weak
and few. One favorite strategy is
to regulate them to death.
Much of this is stuff for politicians and policymakers, but civic entrepreneurs can help to fend off the re-regulation of charter schools in at least two ways:
Organize watchdog and advocacy groups. These organizations can counter assaults on charter autonomy by regulators and, conversely, can check tendencies by charter schools to grow stodgy, complacent and self-interested. The North Carolina Education Reform Foundation (NCERF), which receives financial support from several sources, was initially created to promote greater parental choice in education. Since passage of the North Carolina charter law, it has been the state’s most vocal watchdog for charter schools.
When the state’s advisory board on charter schools tried to meet behind closed doors, NCERF blew the whistle. It has also sponsored mock "legislative hearings" on charter-school issues, run by challengers to political incumbents and open to the public, to protest the senate’s inaction on charter-school laws. NCERF’s director, Vernon Robinson, is also something of a one-man army watching out for those charter enthusiasts who, in his words, become "wimpy or satisfied or lose interest in building a movement after they get their charters."
Some of the charter-school technical assistance centers described above also strive to keep state and local policymakers informed about the problems and triumphs of charter school. For example, a key purpose of the Colorado League of Charter Schools is to "educate" the legislature on charter schools—and to keep its own membership from complacency. The Michigan Association of Public School Academies (charter schools are called "academies" in Michigan) and the Goldwater Institute in Arizona see their roles in a similar fashion.
Establish "friends groups." These groups serve both to support true charter friends and counter false friends and outright foes. Several regional, local, and national foundations—particularly the Walton Family Foundation and the Kinship Foundation—are supporting the creation of these groups at the state and national levels. These convene meetings and develop publications on topics of concern to charter schools. One of the largest of these is the California Network of Education Charters. It holds an annual state-wide conference, drawing attendees from California and around the country.
If the movement can live up
to its commitment to be accountable
for student achievement, conventional
public schools will face
more pressure to follow.
Another example is Minnesota’s Charter Friends National Network, which is negotiating with the state’s education department over how broadly charter schools may define teacher licensing. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools parleys with state agencies to ensure that schools receive all the public funding to which they are entitled. Development of such a "friends" group in Ohio is one of the projects of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (with which both authors are associated).
4. Fostering Accountability
A charter school’s best defense against death by regulation is a bulletproof accountability arrangement, but it needs help in getting there. If these schools are to succeed, parents and policymakers need solid assurance that they are truly delivering better results for less money. Just as important, if the charter-school movement as a whole can live up to its commitment to be accountable for student achievement, conventional public schools will experience even more pressure to follow.
Accountability remains an acute problem for charter schools across the land. As best we can tell, only Massachusetts has in place a solid, statewide charter accountability plan. Promising strategies are arising in Colorado and the District of Columbia. But there’s a long way to go. The hallmarks of a good system of student accountability for academic results include: (1) measurable standards for what students are expected to learn; (2) regular tests that permit parents and policymakers to both measure progress over time and compare each charter school to the rest of the district and the state; and (3) rewards for mastering standards and consequences for failure. Besides student performance, charter schools are legitimately held to account by their sponsors for the other claims and promises made in their charter applications: tending the youngsters in their care, handling public dollars responsibly, and obeying those laws and regulations that have not been waived.
But how to know whether these things are in fact happening? Many essential indicators remain to be developed. We’ve seen lots of pious promises in charter applications and plenty of lofty claims by state charter programs. But we’ve seen few viable instruments or systems so far. How can civic entrepreneurs help on the accountability front?
Create accountability boards. These independent (state or local) boards would weigh evidence about charter-school performance and problems and present sober, balanced reports to the public. Those interested in creating such a group might look to California and its bipartisan "Little Hoover" Commission as a model. In 1996, the commission issued one of the first-ever statewide examinations of charter schools in response to early assaults on California’s charter program by those it termed "critics, some with vested interests in the existing system." Its generally positive report helped to set the fledgling charter movement in California on solid ground. Although the commission is an independent state oversight agency created to promote efficiency, economy, and improved service in government, civic entrepreneurs could generate private-sector counterparts to play similar watchdog roles.
Help fund individual school and state-level task forces. Such panels would design genuine accountability systems that set measurable goals and standards for students and educators and that can then be assessed to determine whether these goals have been reached. Help is also needed for those charter schools that get into accountability-related trouble—for example, problems related to finances, governance, or staffing.
For example, a Boston group named Learning Contract has received foundation support to develop an advanced information-management system that allows schools and parents to track what students have been taught and which pupils have mastered which academic skills. Eventually such information could be available via the Internet. So far, 16 schools around the country have signed on as pilot sites. The Gates Foundation is helping the Colorado League of Charter Schools to develop an accountability plan for Colorado schools that are using the Core Knowledge curriculum of E.D. Hirsch.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board has received a foundation grant to create a cooperative for the 10 schools it has chartered. Called the D.C. Charter League for Accountable Schools (DC CLAS), the group’s purpose is to help each of its schools create an accountability plan for fulfilling its mission. This might include audits of the school’s finances and management practices and measures of student performance and attendance. CLAS offers consultants and conducts workshops on accountability issues.
Finally, several technical assistance centers have undertaken their own evaluations of charter schools. The Pioneer Institute surveys Massachusetts schools annually. The University of Minnesota’s Center for School Change produces ongoing studies of charter schools. The most recent of these investigated how a sample of charter schools measures student achievement, whether the schools are boosting achievement, and what these schools are doing to meet their accountability requirements.
A Subversive Influence
Charter schools are a subversive influence with the potential for doing great harm to the educational status quo and great good for children. Implicit in them is a fundamental redefinition of what we mean by public education and a profound alternative to the familiar bureaucratic monopoly. In the face of relentless attacks by forces that find the prospect of charter-school success alarming, however, we must wonder whether the charter-school movement will be allowed to get big and strong enough to demonstrate its full potential.
Charter schools are a powerful engine for the renewal of civil society, particularly those aspects that attend to the community’s neediest members. The participation of individuals in the creation of charter schools is itself an exercise in citizenship: people rolling up their sleeves, joining together, and working side-by-side to improve one of the most fundamental institutions in any community: its schools. The process of creating charter schools cannot but help to recharge our democratic batteries. These schools are, in Peter Drucker’s formulation, "[N]ot the collectivism of organized governmental action from above" but "the collectivism of voluntary group action from below."
That is exactly the sort of project that civic entrepreneurs should be embracing: clearing their path, solving their problems, assisting their creation, repelling their foes, and propelling them to success.
Chester E. Finn Jr. is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and John M. Olin Fellow in the Washington, D.C., office of the Hudson Institute. Bruno V. Manno is a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and a member of the Fordham board of directors. Both authors participated in the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal (supported by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation).
Many of the organizations mentioned in this article can provide further information about assisting the charter-school movement.
Charter Friends National Network (St. Paul, Minn.) • Tel.: (612) 644-5270.
Charter School Development Corp. (Washington, D.C.) • Tel.: (202) 739-9629.
Charter Schools Development Ctr. (Sacramento, Calif.) • Tel.: (916) 278-4600.
Colorado League of Charter Schools • Tel.: (303) 989-5356.
Community Facilities Fund (Durham, N.C.) • Tel.: (919) 956-4400.
D.C. Charter League for Accountable Schools • Tel.: (202) 887-5011.
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (Washington, D.C.) • Tel.: (202) 223-5452.
Financial Fndtn. for Charter Schools (Houston,Tex.) • Tel.: (713) 420-3750.
New Jersey Inst. for School Innovation (Newark, N.J.) • Tel.: (973) 621-6467; Web site: www.hosting.injersey.com/schools/CSRC.
North Carolina Education Reform Foundation (Durham, N.C.) • Tel.: (919) 419-8844; Web site: www.successnet.net/ncerf.
Pioneer Institute’s Charter Schools Resource Ctr. (Boston, Mass.) • Tel.: (617) 723-2277; Web site: www.pioneerinstitute.org/csrc/index.html.
Twin Cities Charter Schools Project (Minneapolis, Minn.) • Tel.: (612) 625-7552; Web site: www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/school-change/nextwin.htm.
Also, the Center for Education Reform, a D.C.-based education advocacy group, publishes The Charter School Workbook, a comprehensive guide to the movement. Tel.: (800) 521-2118; Web site: www.edreform.com.
How Lawmakers Can Help
Charter Scschools would not face so many hurdles if policymakers set more reasonable terms for their existence. Civic entrepreneurs and other proponents of charter schools should be alert for opportunities to advocate better terms in a number of areas:
Strong chartering laws. State charter laws set the framework for the scale, resources, and autonomy of charter schools. Strong laws allow charter schools wide latitude in their finances, educational program, and operations. Strong laws also permit well-qualified individuals without conventional certification to teach in charter schools; let any individual, group, or organization submit a charter proposal; grant automatic exemptions from most red tape; allow public authorities other than the local school board to approve charters; and permit a large (or unlimited) number of charter schools.
Access to financing. Resource woes are the greatest single barrier to establishment of charter schools. Few such schools receive any capital funding, and in many places their per-pupil operating budgets are lower than those of conventional public schools. Yet they are expected to produce superior results. A state could ease the capital problem in several ways. It might lend capital to charter schools from its own pension or "rainy day" funds. It could direct state agencies to assist charter schools or create new agencies to do so. Or the state might simply guarantee private borrowing by charter schools, much as the federal government backs small-business loans.
Sound accountability systems. At the heart of the charter notion is the exchange of operational freedom for superior performance. That means setting standards for what students should be learning, testing them, and applying consequences to schools that fail to achieve their goals. But today, it’s hard to know how well these schools are doing. One reason is that today’s charter accountability systems are underdeveloped, reflecting the sad state of education accountability in nearly every state. Policymakers need to develop better systems that link standards, tests, and consequences.
What Are Charter Schools Like?
Unlike most conventional public schools, many charter schools owe their existence to grass-roots initiatives. In their capacities as philanthropists, parents, and members of their communities, civic entrepreneurs ought to be aware of the many opportunities to nurture charter schools.
Charter schools are typically either conversions (pre-existing schools that secede from the "system") or start-ups (new schools created by charter). Those who launch them fall into three groups: educators, parents, and an array of third parties that include nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses, and multi-service community groups like Boys and Girls Clubs. A few examples from around the country convey a sense of the needs, passions, and visions that are motivating the founders of these independent public schools.
The Minnesota New Country School in LeSueur, Minnesota, is managed by a "cooperative" of educators. Founded in 1994 in several downtown storefronts, it enrolls some 95 students in grades seven through 12 and offers an individualized approach to learning. Each student fashions his or her own projects and sets academic goals in consultation with teachers and parents.
School officials describe their approach as "entrepreneurial." Computer-savvy students, for instance, run an Internet-access service for the surrounding area. New Country has no employees as such. Rather, its governing board has a performance-based contract with EdVisions Cooperative, a group of New Country School educators (and others), for its educational management. These educators, then, are both employees and employers.
Oakland Charter Academy illustrates the parent-initiated start-up. In the early 1990s, a group of parents whose children attended Lazear Elementary School in Oakland grew concerned about the quality of middle schools in their mostly Hispanic community. These parents found the public schools overcrowded, unsafe, and ill-equipped to teach children with limited English. In 1993, not long after the California legislature authorized charter schools, these parents asked Clementina Duron, then principal of Lazear, to help them start a charter school for grades six through eight.
Despite intense opposition from the teachers’ union and the local school board, the school opened with 120 students. Its hallmarks are smaller classes, longer school days, firm discipline, and a pledge required of all parents to attend monthly meetings and assist with many administrative and custodial tasks around the school. Despite early difficulty in finding a permanent location, it now enrolls around 175 students, nearly all from minority groups.
Responding to Governor John Engler’s call for the creation of secondary "technical schools," a coalition of educators and local industry leaders in 1995 founded the Livingston Technical Academy in Lowell, Michigan. The eight-hours-a-day curriculum for its 35 11th- and 12th-grade students combines traditional academic subjects with hands-on technical skills. Every student spends 10 weeks a year apprenticed to local firms in such areas as metalwork, electronics, and robotics. Housed on the campus of a local college, Livingston is one of several "trade academy" charter schools that received start-up grants from the state’s Job Commission.
Fenton Avenue Charter School is a preschool through sixth-grade school that seceded from the Los Angeles Unified School District to operate independently. Until its conversion in 1994, Fenton Avenue had among the lowest test scores and attendance rates and among the highest teacher turnover rates in the San Fernando Valley. It has boosted pupil test scores more than 20 percent in the last two years; teacher absenteeism has declined 80 percent since its pre-charter status, and its student-attendance rate is higher than all noncharter schools in the school district. With $1 million-plus in grants from public, nonprofit, and corporate sources, it has linked all its classrooms together with a model closed-circuit TV network used for a range of lessons in communications technology.
Open year-round, it educates nearly 1,300 students with a teaching staff of 70. Its enrollment is almost entirely minority and low-income. Besides a solid, phonics-based reading program for students, it operates a family center, an English-as-a-second
-language program for adults, citizenship classes, after-school enrichment classes, study halls, and academic clinics.