Charter Schools Face Tough Test: Accountability

Some work out of trailers on shoestring budgets. Others pass around blueprints for multimillion-dollar building projects.

Despite such differences, all the charter-school activists meeting for their first national conference last week insisted that they were part of the most important educational reform of the 1990s.

But a final report card is not yet in on the charter experiment, and some activists worry that its successes - and failures - could prompt a backlash.

"Phoenix public schools are losing about $5,000 for every student that chooses to come to my school. It's beginning to hurt, and I'm afraid that there's a backlash coming," says Patty Shaw, director of the Phoenix-based Intelli-School, a charter school for at-risk teens.

Charter schools are publicly funded, and many are exempt from regulations governing other public schools, including collective-bargaining agreements with unions. They aim to innovate and offer parents a choice.

"We are a teacher's license to dream," says Irene Sumida, director of the Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace, Calif. With an annual budget of $7.4 million and a Power Mac on every fifth-grader's desk, Fenton is a textbook case for what new ideas and resources can do in tough neighborhoods.

"Eighty percent of our students are Hispanic, 15 percent are African-American, and 60 percent have limited English proficiency. We have a 99 percent attendance rate, and last May we were named one of California's distinguished schools," she adds. Services include literacy training for parents, parenting courses for students, and, when needed, a free ride to court.

"For far too long this nation has tolerated giving young people, especially in our large cities, a third-class education. This is why ... we are so encouraged by the work you do," Education Secretary Richard Riley told some 800 activists in Washington on Nov. 4.

More funds from Congress

Since the first one in 1991, some 750 charter schools have opened, and lawmakers expect to approve at least $80 million to start more.

In Arizona, some 30,000 students, or about 5 percent, now attend charter schools. By next year, that number should jump to 40,000 or 50,000, state officials say. Florida aims to be the first state with public school choice in every district.

"We have 40 ... charter schools, and our legislature has required all 67 districts to have a plan to expand public school choice within the year," says Florida Education Commissioner Frank Brogan.

Preliminary studies on the charter-school experience suggest that charters are popular with parents, teachers, and students. Children do well in many of them.

But there are no comprehensive studies on whether this new wave of charter schools has actually raised student performance or prompted reforms in public schools, and experts say that the hurdles for new charter schools are formidable.

"Applicants commonly underestimate dramatically the business expertise required to run a charter school," says Lawrence Pierce, who just completed a two-year study on charter-school accountability in six states for the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).

In Massachusetts, for example, the costs of serving larger than expected numbers of special education students have severely strained charter school budgets. "Don't delay preparing for special education. If you let it come at you, you'll find the requirements under new special education laws can consume a great deal of your time and resources," says Mr. Pierce.

Bankers, lawyers, and financial advisers interviewed for the 1997 CRPE study described "dealing with the opposition" as one of the major hurdles for charter-school applicants. "Know whom you threaten and plan to counteract their opposition," they say.

Some activists say that public schools are dumping problem students on them or refusing to accept credits from charter graduates. Others worry that the news media are being influenced by criticism from teachers' unions.

"Our district has 9 percent special ed students, and I just found out that 25 percent of the students enrolled ... this year are special ed. Many Hartford families say they were referred to us by the school district. We don't want to tell them to go somewhere else, but we just don't have the resources to meet their needs," says Thelma Dickerson, administrative director of the Jumoke Academy, in Hartford, Conn.

A hot topic at the conference was a Nov. 2 CBS "60 Minutes" report that raised questions about standards, nepotism, and fiscal accountability in Washington D.C.'s controversial Marcus Garvey charter school. .

Such programs give a "very unfair image of charter schools" said assistant education secretary Gerald Tirozzi.

In fact, only a very small percentage of charter schools have been closed, some 15 out of 750, said a panel of researchers.

"That's an extraordinarily low number, given that charters are such a high-risk venture," says Bruno Manno, an expert on charter schools with the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

Success in the niches

But two of the most successful charter school activists insist that these are precisely the challenges that could give the charter movement its greatest success.

The New Visions charter school in Minneapolis recruits students with serious reading problems. "We are 70 percent special ed students, youngsters who have been unable to learn in traditional settings. They come to us for a year or two until their developmental problems are resolved. Then we send them back to other public schools," says Bob Schneider, director of education for New Visions.

"Charters work best in niche areas. There has to be a special student population that you serve," says Gilbert Moreno, chief executive officer of Sanchez Charter High School in Houston, which works with at-risk Hispanic youth.

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