Outside the System but with the System’s Blessing: Are Charter Schools a Force for Change?

Eight states have now made charter schools part of their education reform agendas, but the dust has not yet settled as to exactly what that means. In California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, legislators have authorized independent groups of educators, businesspeople, or parents to create publicly funded alternatives to their local schools- and a recent survey indicates that at least fourteen more states are considering such action.

Though state laws vary widely, in general a charter school functions under contract, outside the system but with its blessing. In many cases, such as Colorado and California, groups must apply to their local school boards for a charter, with the right to appeal to the state if turned down; waivers from regulations must be approved one by one. In others, such as Massachusetts, the state itself grants legal autonomy from the traditional local educational authority, usually including exemptions from district collective bargaining agreements. Some districts, such as Philadelphia and New York City, allow sections of public schools to splinter into independently managed entities; others prefer to charter totally new schools. Most of California’s charter proposals come from existing public schools wishing to convert to charters. No state authorizes public funding of a sectarian school.

Whatever form their ventures take, charter school advocates hope to duck an unwieldy educational bureaucracy in the interests of swift reform. Some, especially old-school conversions, focus more on retooling old management and governance than on changes in content, curriculum, or pedagogy. “We call these ‘breakaway schools,”‘ says Rexford Brown, a policy analyst at the Education Commission for the States who himself has received encouragement from the Denver, Colorado school board for a charter school proposal that reflects many Essential School ideas. “In contrast, the ‘breakthrough school’ aims to redesign the learning environment from scratch.”

In return for independence, however, charter schools must confront on their own a complex and expensive obstacle course of legal requirements for the health, safety, and civil rights of children- without the safety net of state and local capital and benefits. “A whole exoskeleton of supports that school people take for granted-buildings that meet code, liability insurance, general funds for special education-are not there for you,” says Brown. “Yet you don’t want to create around yourself the same set of strangling regulations that have made the existing system so regressive.” Though some states offer technical assistance to help charters solve such problems, only Massachusetts has mandated start-up funds for proposals the state approves.

In virtually all cases, tax dollars follow children who choose to attend a charter school, though formulas vary as to how much that amounts to. For this reason, many critics worry that charters will draw off funds from existing public schools, achieving a voucher- like system by the back door. Advocates counter that charters can contribute to systemic reform by creating a public laboratory in which to try out innovative ways.

“We have the same type of kids and 80 percent of the money,” says John Mikulas, who last fall enrolled 70 sixth- through eighth-graders in Pueblo County, Colorado in the new Connect School, a charter with an Essential School philosophy. “The district uses the other 20 percent to provide us with transportation and some bookkeeping services. Twice a year we report to the central office on our students’ progress and our finances. In return we get much more control of our management and of what and how we teach kids.” Located in a low-rent building in downtown Pueblo, Connect School students use public and university libraries, science labs at a nearby community college, a district technology lab, the local Y for physical education, a city arts center, and an outdoor nature study facility at an area middle school. (“All our teachers also have a bus driver’s license,” Mikulas says wryly.) Students with a wide range of special needs learn alongside their classmates, though when their needs are too severe, they must go elsewhere in the district. “There’s a lot you don’t know beforehand when you start a school,” says Rex Brown. “If you did, you’d be crazy to do it. Yet you’re constantly learning, and it’s exhilarating. For the most part, at least everyone coming to you is interested in change.”