When the charter-school movement got under way in 1991, it promised an alternative to traditional public schools, with innovative teaching and freedom from bureaucratic inertia. In many instances, that promise has been realized, but not in all.
Some charter schools have failed, about 4 percent out of more than 2,000 started in the 38 states that have laws allowing such schools (see story, page 11). That failure rate doesn't represent a major problem with the movement, though it does indicate some stock-taking may be needed.
Charters have failed in a number of states, though the failures are probably clustered in states that have relatively liberal charter laws, such as Arizona and Texas. Tighter state oversight is probably called for, particularly in setting standards for financial management of the schools. Charters, though free of many administrative and union rules that bind other schools, are still public institutions that have to earn public trust.
The broader issue is whether charter schools are in fact giving kids a better education - and giving other public schools a competitive nudge to improve their own performance. Critics doubt this is happening. Indeed, some struggling charters have clearly failed to boost academic standards. But other charters have just as clearly attracted an enthusiastic clientele of students and parents, and public schools that lose children to charters are forced to take notice.
Nine years isn't a lot of time to assess the benefits of a far-reaching innovation. Charters remain a few thousand out of hundreds of thousands of public schools.
Meanwhile, the few failures should be instructive, focusing increased attention on this important experiment.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society