'I JUST want my daughter and son to get a good education,'' an anxious mother said recently in a call to my office. ''I think the public school they are attending just is not meeting their needs in any way. So what are my options?''
Many parents are asking this question. Some are just beginning to explore the possibilities; others almost frantically demand answers. The good news for these parents is that local boards of education and state legislatures are becoming more responsive to such concerns.
One rapidly growing alternative is the charter-school movement. What started cautiously in the early 1990s seems ready to sweep the nation.
Eighteen states have enacted charter school legislation. More then 200 charter schools will be in operation during the new academic year. Unlike other public schools, they essentially will be free of restrictive bureaucratic controls. Instead, teachers and parents, and in some instances local businesses, will work closely to create their own governing rules (but with accountability to the local education agency and the state). They will design curriculum and programs to meet the specific needs of the student population, and they will strive for strong home-school communication.
The founding philosophies of most of the schools will be consistent with the research on effective schools: They will have well-defined missions, high standards and expectations, support for the individual child, strong leadership, a safe and secure environment for learning, and a budget developed and managed on-site, not by a mysterious thrice-removed central office.
Most charter schools will have a core of courses and services to help young people function in a complex society; some will have programs to serve special-needs students. Innovative instructional techniques for improving how children learn, both individually and cooperatively, will be explored.
Many charter-school principals, teachers, and parents are finding that models already exist for what they are trying to accomplish - the independent schools of America, which have curricula to match precisely defined statements of purpose, values shared by the people who make up the school community, extensive communication with parents, and governing boards that epitomize local control because they are responsible only for a single institution.
Is there a better way for public charter schools to succeed than through communication and cooperation with existing independent schools? Why not hundreds of sister-school relationships, not mandated by anyone other than the people in two schools that share common goals and commitments?
Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, says, ''It is important that we explore new ways to improve schools.'' He is not talking about some schools, but all American education. If this nation is to respond to incredible changes throughout the world, we need new building blocks. Charter schools learning from independent schools, and independent schools learning from charter schools' fresh exploration of teaching, could help all of us in education, including those in other public schools and those designing the teacher-education programs in our universities.
''I just want my daughter and son to get a good education,'' the mother said. We have her two children to educate, and we have over 48 million other daughters and sons in our elementary and secondary schools in this new academic year. We cannot ignore any opportunity to help them learn more effectively.