There's a new brand of educational choice in town. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws that provide for the creation of independent public schools free from many traditional public-school regulations. By last January there were 428 in operation; about 700 are expected to be up and running for the 1997-98 school year.
These charter schools aren't turning into elite academies, enrolling only the best and brightest at the public's expense, as critics speculated. On the contrary, half of the existing charter schools serve at-risk kids. Nearly two-thirds of students are nonwhite, and more than half come from poor families. About 1 in 5 has limited English proficiency, and 19 percent have a disability that affects their education.
Parents and teachers alike are responding. In California, Jingletown Charter Middle School had a waiting list of 30 students, while Sonoma Charter School had 400 applicants for 230 places. In Massachusetts, the Boston Renaissance Charter School received more than 1,000 applications from teachers for 40 positions and 2,000 student applications for 600 spots.
Charter schools are founded - and are appealing to parents and teachers - because of the commitment to a shared vision and control over curriculum, staffing, and budget. About a dozen states have "strong" legislation that encourages an array of schools and services, and a majority of the schools established under charter laws exist in these strong charter states.
Such strong charter statutes include provisions that make the schools independent entities with clear performance-based assessments and waivers from state and local codes and regulations (other than those for health, safety, and civil rights).
These statutes create more than one charter-approving entity, so that those seeking to establish charter schools don't have to get approval from sometimes reluctant local school boards. These enabling statutes also offer clear, objective criteria for charter approval to insulate the process from political influence.
Another key to charter school success: direct state funding at levels equivalent to the average per pupil expenditures statewide. The inclusion of operating and capital funds in the allocation is vital.
But not all charter statutes incorporate all of these provisions. Many charter schools continue to struggle with funding for facilities and other up-front costs. Others are required to apply to the local board for authorization, making them less independent. Yet another impediment is caps on the number of charter schools allowed. Such caps only limit the possibilities available to parents, students, and teachers.
Though specific goals are set forth in the charter, it's up to individuals in the schools to determine how they're going to meet them. If a school fails to meet the goals, the charter is either revoked (in cases of mismanagement) or not renewed. This provides accountability not found in the traditional school system.
Only with all provisions of strong charter statutes in place will schools move from being rule-followers to results-oriented education providers.
* Richard C. Seder is director of education studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles.