In his 25-year career as an educator, Joe Nathan has seen plenty of education reforms come and go.
"But I've never seen one that challenges the existing power structure as the charter-school idea does," says the author of the just published "Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education."
The creation of tax-supported schools that are free from most state and district regulation is a fundamental shift for public education. Yet it appeals to people, Mr. Nathan says in a phone interview from Minnesota, because it "taps into three strongly held American values: opportunity, choice, and responsibility."
Today, nearly 500 charter schools are operating in the 25 states with charter-school laws. Nathan predicts there will be up to 700 charters by fall.
One reason for the galloping pace of the charter-school movement is the widespread frustration with poor public schools. For public-education believers like Nathan, charter schools are more appealing than providing publicly funded vouchers for private schooling. "The discussion about vouchers has certainly made this seem like a more reasonable approach," Nathan says.
While he is convinced that the current education system needs to be challenged, Nathan says that challenge must be constructed carefully.
"This is not just about creating new schools or conversion of existing schools," Nathan says. "It's also about encouraging the existing system to improve by providing fair and thoughtful competition."
In many places that is already beginning to happen. Nathan cites examples of school districts across the nation that have responded with Montessori preschools or other special programs after parents and teachers began the process of opening a charter school to meet that interest.
He is convinced that charter schools offer a more fair and constructive choice than the magnet schools now popular in many cities. "We have some extremely elitist [magnet] schools in the United States that go by the name of public but actually are, in my opinion, quasi-private, elite schools that are publicly supported," Nathan says.
More than half of the secondary magnet schools in the United States today have admission tests, and many spend more money per student than other public schools. Charter schools are not allowed to have admission tests and spend exactly the same per pupil as other public schools.
"It's important to talk about not the rhetoric of public education but the reality," Nathan says. "The reality, as I see it, is we have an intensely unfair choice system. We don't have common schools anything like what Horace Mann talked about."
Nathan is convinced that the charter-school movement can bring the country back toward Mann's original ideal of providing a high-quality education to a diverse student body.
"This is no longer just theory," Nathan says. "There is very clear evidence conducted by outside evaluators that these schools are helping kids. Several studies have found that charter schools are more racially diverse than the other public schools where they operate."
After spending many years working in alternative schools, Nathan is not surprised that charter schools are attracting a diverse group of students with many special needs. "Parents don't move their children if the kids are doing well," he says. "The kids who are not making it in traditional schools are looking for an alternative to dropping out."
Nathan wrote his book for the parents and educators who had been calling him every week by the dozen. They were attracted to the possibilities of a new approach to education. "This is really a movement about hope and possibility," the author says. "It focuses on using people's best ideas."