ERIC Identifier: ED455973
Publication Date: 2001-08-00
Author: Donahoo, Saran
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Perspectives on Charter Schools: A Review for Parents. ERIC
In recent years, many parents, educators, students, researchers, and
observers have reached the same conclusion: Traditional schools do not work for
all students (Finn et al., 2000; B. Nelson et al., 2000). As a result, many
states have passed laws enabling the development of charter schools as an
attempt to better meet the needs of those students who are not being adequately
served by traditional schools. Although the number of charter schools has grown
in the last few years, it still is sometimes unclear what they have to offer
students, parents, and educators that more traditional schools do not already
provide. This Digest offers some general information on charter schools,
discusses how they have been perceived, and summarizes the results of research
WHAT IS A CHARTER SCHOOL?
A charter school is a public
school of choice established through a contract that specifies the operating
procedures of the school and the length of time that the school will receive
public support. In most cases, a state or a local school board issues the
individual school's contract or charter. Some states have created school boards
specifically responsible for monitoring charter schools (B. Nelson et al.,
As described by Finn et al. (2000), a charter school is considered a hybrid
of public and private schools. Like public schools, charter schools are open to
all students, although some may have a specific focus that is likely to appeal
to some families more than others. However, charter schools are similar to
private schools in that they are independent and self-governing, and the
students, parents, and teachers choose to participate in the school. Unlike
either traditional public or private schools, charter schools are viewed by some
as more accountable for student performance because the school may be closed if
it fails to produce promised or desired results (Finn et al., 2000).
Currently, 37 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow for
the founding of charter schools (B. Nelson et al., 2000; Sandham, 2001). Charter
school legislation differs in each state, but most states allow charter schools
to be established by public, private, or civic organizations. School districts,
colleges and universities, community groups, and parent groups have chosen to
launch charter schools (Finn et al., 2000; Schneider, 1999). For the most part,
charter schools are either newly created schools or pre-existing public or
private schools that convert to charter status for greater autonomy or access to
public funds (Northwest Regional Education Laboratory [NWREL], 2000). The
federal government sees charter schools as a way of increasing school choice and
plans to provide funding to assist charter schools (Bush, 2001).
Many charter schools were founded to decrease existing achievement gaps by
improving the educational opportunities available to certain segments of the
student population or to promote specific social skills as well as academics.
Examples of charter school agendas include serving hard-to-educate students,
teaching a multicultural curriculum, and promoting a curriculum that emphasizes
conflict resolution and other social skills (Schneider, 1999). Some of these
schools have also established contracts with for-profit companies to provide
many of their services, including food service, curriculum, or management.
WHAT ARE PEOPLE SAYING ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS?
first charter school law was passed in 1991, charter schools have continued to
gain national interest and support. Proponents believe that charter schools are
a practical alternative to traditional schools because they allow parents to
choose the schools their children attend without having to pay tuition.
Supporters also contend that they help to promote improvements in public
education by increasing competition among schools (Finn et al., 2000; Lasley & Bainbridge, 2001).
Opponents contend that charter schools may have a damaging effect on public
education. While charter schools increase school choice, some argue that they
also direct resources away from urban and rural public schools that serve
students from low- income families. Furthermore, the fact that over half of the
current charter schools serve only elementary-grade students suggests that they
have not had a significant impact on school choice at the middle and high school
levels (Lasley & Bainbridge, 2001).
Another criticism of charter schools is that they lack stability. Since 1992,
59 charter schools have opened and closed; 27 schools closed during the
1998-1999 school year alone (B. Nelson et al., 2000). Many closures appear to
have resulted from serious management or financial problems (Archer, 2000).
Financing is often a major concern since most charter schools do not receive
funds to cover facilities and other related expenses (Finn et al., 2000). In
addition, most state funding policies give no consideration to the costs of
facilities, transportation, and resources for at-risk or special education
students when approving charter school budgets (F. Nelson et al., 2000).
Even so, many charter schools have learned to operate successfully by
reducing their costs. Some strategies used to lower costs include hiring
uncertified teachers, using parents and other volunteers instead of paid staff
in uncertified positions, and providing only academic/classroom-related
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS?
research on charter schools has compared regulations governing charter schools
in different states, assessed parent satisfaction, described how these schools
differ from and affect traditional public schools, assessed how well charter
schools serve specific populations of students, or discussed the place these
schools have in public education (Cheung et al., 1998; Fiore et al., 2000;
Jennings et al., 1998; Borsa et al., 1999; B. Nelson et al., 2000; Rhim &
McLaughlin, 2000; Zollers & Ramanathan, 1998).
Research data on charter schools to date have generally been gathered through
the use of surveys and questionnaires. Because of the short length of charter
schools' existence and differing approaches to assessment, it is difficult to
determine whether or not attending charter schools improves student academic
In one of the few studies that examined academic achievement, Cheung et al.
(1998) used surveys to assess the impact charter schools have on student
achievement. They concluded that students enrolled in 21 of 31 charter schools
studied improved performance on two rounds of the same standardized achievement
tests since entering the charter school. But the authors warn against making
achievement comparisons between charter school students and those who attend
other public schools. For example, charter schools that serve low-income
families or students who do not speak English at home may be viewed as
academically unsuccessful when compared with local district schools serving a
broader range of students (Cheung et al., 1998).
For the most part, researchers seem to agree that parents who use charter
schools are satisfied with them because they get to choose the schools for
themselves (Finn et al., 2000; Teske et al., 2000). Some parents also believe
that charter schools provide a more culturally sensitive education and
environment than traditional schools (Schnaiberg, 2000).
Another common research area related to charter schools is special education.
Many state charter laws make little or no mention of how these schools are
expected to serve students with disabilities. Many charter schools choose to
discourage students with disabilities from enrolling or do not comply with
federal special education statutes because they feel these services are too
costly to provide (Jennings et al., 1998; Rhim & McLaughlin, 2000; Zollers
& Ramanathan, 1998). Although it is illegal for public schools to
discriminate when enrolling students, many charter schools are not prepared to
serve students with disabilities.
Other notable research findings include the following:
* Charter schools may deter some minority, poor, and
working families from seeking enrollment by requiring them to complete volunteer
hours and failing to provide transportation and free lunches to eligible
students (Schnaiberg, 2000).
The racial composition of charter schools tends to follow the same patterns
found in local area public schools (B. Nelson et al., 2000).
Most charter schools do not require their teachers to be certified (Borsa et
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Archer, J. (2000). Accountability
measures vary widely. EDUCATION WEEK, 19(36), 1, 18-20.
Borsa, J., Ahmed, M., & Perry, K. (1999, August). CHARTER SCHOOL
GOVERNANCE. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Council of
Professors of Educational Administration, Jackson Hole, WY. ED 436 856.
Bush, G. W. (2001). NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND [Online]. Available:
Cheung, S., Murphy, M. E., & Nathan, J. (1998). MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
CHARTER SCHOOLS, EVALUATION, AND STUDENT PERFORMANCE. Minneapolis, MN: Center
for School Change. ED 419 296.
Finn, C. E., Manno, B. V., & Vanourek, G. (2000). CHARTER SCHOOLS IN
ACTION: RENEWING PUBLIC EDUCATION. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ED
Fiore, T. A., Harwell, L. A., Blackorby, J., & Finnigan, K. S. (2000).
CHARTER SCHOOLS AND STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES: A NATIONAL STUDY. Washington,
DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Available:
Jennings, W., Premack, E., Adelmann, A., & Solomon, D. (1998). A
COMPARISON OF CHARTER SCHOOL LEGISLATION: THIRTY-THREE STATES AND THE DISTRICT
OF COLUMBIA INCORPORATING LEGISLATIVE CHANGES THROUGH OCTOBER 1998. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Lasley, T. J., II, & Bainbridge, W. L. (2001). Unintended consequences.
EDUCATION WEEK, 19(33), 38, 42.
Nelson, B., Berman, P., Ericson, J., Kamprath, N., Perry, R., Silverman, D.,
& Solomon, D. (2000). THE STATE OF CHARTER SCHOOLS 2000: FOURTH-YEAR REPORT.
Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Available:
http:// www.ed.gov/pubs/charter4thyear/. ED 437 724.
Nelson, F. H., Muir, E., & Drown, R. (2000). VENTURESOME CAPITAL: STATE
CHARTER SCHOOL FINANCE SYSTEMS. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research
and Improvement. ED 448 514.
Northwest Regional Education Laboratory (NWREL). (2000). CHARTER SCHOOLS
[Online]. Available: http://www.nwrel.org/charter/.%20
Rhim, L. M., & McLaughlin, M. J. (2000). CHARTER SCHOOLS AND SPECIAL
EDUCATION: BALANCING DISPARATE VISIONS. Alexandria, VA: National Association of
State Directors of Special Education. ED 444 297.
Sandham, J. L. (2001). Indiana legislature passes charter school law.
EDUCATION WEEK, 20(32), 20, 23.
Schnaiberg, L. (2000). Charter schools: Choice, diversity may be at odds.
EDUCATION WEEK, 19(35), 1, 18-20.
Schneider, J. (1999). Five prevailing charter types. SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR,
56(7), 29-31. EJ 589 466.
Teske, P., Schneider, M., Buckley, J., & Clark, S. (2000). Does charter
school competition improve traditional public schools? New York: Center for
Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute. Available:
U.S. Charter Schools [Online]. (2000). Available:
Zollers, N. J., & Ramanathan, A. K. (1998). For-profit charter schools
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