Charter schools have been the leading edge of the American "school choice" movement for a decade now long enough to gain a sense of their worthiness. But proponents and opponents of charters, predictably, come up with quite different evaluations.
Consider, for example, a recent report by the American Federation of Teachers, the country's second largest teachers' union. Unions often have been critical of charters, since they operate free of most contracts and rules. But AFT says it's not anticharter. It just wants to be sure they're held accountable like other public schools. Using state data, it claims most charters offer lackluster results.
The Center for Education Reform, an advocate of charters and school choice, said the AFT's data were "tired," and went on to cite other studies showing charters competing favorably with regular public schools.
The battle of data could go on indefinitely. The better course for now is to take a step back from that standoff and recall why charters exist: They are a way to seed the public school system with innovation, free of stifling bureaucracy and union rules, especially in inner cities.
Some 2,400 charters are operating around the US, instructing more than 500,000 children. They can be set up by nonprofit organizations, community groups, or groups of teachers who want to try something different. They sometimes focus on a particular interest, such as the arts or science. Some are designed to meet the needs of particular students, such as inner-city blacks. A few are even trying cyber-instruction on the Internet.
As the AFT points out, perhaps 10 percent of the charters formed since 1992 have closed, often for financial reasons. But charters with problems are shut down. That's more than can be said for many underperforming public schools that go on for years.
Charter schools, as other public schools, should be held to a uniform standard of accountability. Test scores count. But a charter's accountability also hinges on the school's ability to satisfy parents that it's doing a better job than other public options. If the the charter can do that, and parents are behind it, it's succeeding.
The movement toward more school choice creates both challenges and opportunities. Will voucher programs, for instance, put charters in competition with private schools? Educational entrepreneurs who set up charters might opt, instead, to create new private institutions.
Whatever their current assessment, charters add a needed yeastiness to education reform, trying out new ideas. They're an experiment well worth sustaining.