CHICAGO — In a single stroke, Chicago has seized on charter schools to help save what is widely regarded as the country's most troubled big-city school system.
The sweeping approval of 10 charter schools, a relatively new concept, might ordinarily raise eyebrows. Only Los Angeles has more such schools, with 16.
But the independently run schools are part of a series of radical reforms that the city has been rolling out in an effort to turn around its education system. Consider: Nearly 1 out of every 5 city schools is on probation, and scores of teachers and administrators work under the threat of a mass firing.
Still, some local educators worry that city officials see charter schools as the latest magic bullet.
"If you look at legislation that enables a typical Chicago school to rename itself, reorganize itself, and organize its own curriculum, I don't see much difference between that and a charter school," says Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education.
Charter schools are the hottest trend in education reform. The Chicago schools approved on Wednesday will open this fall along with more than 480 other charter schools already open nationwide. The movement has exploded since the launch of the first charter school in 1992.
Today, some 25 states have laws allowing for the schools, which are funded by public money but may set many of their own administrative and teaching rules. The schools are founded by nonprofit foundations, parents, universities, and civic groups. They admit students by lottery, and the state may shut down schools performing below standard.
"These schools will serve as a laboratory, showing us how schools function in a less-bureaucratic environment," says Gery Chico, president of the Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees.
Charter schools enjoy support across the political spectrum. The White House indicated that President Clinton intends in his Feb. 6 budget proposal to nearly double funding for charter schools.
Some educators contend that such schools buoy test scores and inspire improvement in conventional schools by exposing them to competition. "They introduce an awful lot of hope, which is what urban areas need - we really can make a big difference in kids' lives," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota.
In Chicago, the novelty of charter schools is partially diluted by the greater autonomy given Chicago schools since the 1990-91 school year, educators say. Since then, test results in elementary schools have crept upward, but high school performance remains in a slump.
Some critics argue that charter schools divert resources away from the most disadvantaged students. "The pitfall for charter schools is that they will become selective schools that will serve only a narrow group of students," says Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago-based group for school reform.
But some studies suggest otherwise. Minorities tend to be enrolled in charter schools at disproportionate rates, says Mr. Nathan, author of "Charter Schools."
"The Chicago charter schools are concerned about kids with special needs," says Greg Richmond, assistant chief of staff for Chicago schools. "They are not in it to help rich know-it-alls."