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Charter Schools in Action

Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education

Chester E. Finn
Bruno V. Manno
Gregg Vanourek
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Charter Schools in Action
    Book Description:

    Can charter schools save public education? This radical question has unleashed a flood of opinions from Americans struggling with the contentious challenges of education reform. There has been plenty of heat over charter schools and their implications, but, until now, not much light. This important new book supplies plenty of illumination.

    Charter schools--independently operated public schools of choice--have existed in the United States only since 1992, yet there are already over 1,500 of them. How are they doing? Here prominent education analysts Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Gregg Vanourek offer the richest data available on the successes and failures of this exciting but controversial approach to education reform. After studying one hundred schools, interviewing hundreds of participants, surveying thousands more, and analyzing the most current data, they have compiled today's most authoritative, comprehensive explanation and appraisal of the charter phenomenon. Fact-filled, clear-eyed, and hard-hitting, this is the book for anyone concerned about public education and interested in the role of charter schools in its renewal.

    Can charter schools boost student achievement, drive educational innovation, and develop a new model of accountability for public schools? Where did the idea of charter schools come from? What would the future hold if this phenomenon spreads? These are some of the questions that this book answers. It addresses pupil performance, enrollment patterns, school start-up problems, charges of inequity, and smoldering political battles. It features close-up looks at five real--and very different--charter schools and two school districts that have been deeply affected by the charter movement, including their setbacks and triumphs. After outlining a new model of education accountability and describing how charter schools often lead to community renewal, the authors take the reader on an imaginary tour of a charter-based school system.

    Charter schools are the most vibrant force in education today. This book suggests that their legacy will consist not only of helping millions of families obtain a better education for their children but also in renewing American public education itself.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2341-3
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-10)

    This book emerges from three and a half years of immersion in the world of charter schools under the auspices of the Educational Excellence Network. The first two of those years we devoted to a research project called “Charter Schools in Action,” generously supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and housed at the Hudson Institute. We conducted that study with Louann Bierlein, now the education policy advisor to Louisiana Governor Mike Foster. (We’re pleased that Louann also appears in chapter 11.)

    Our purpose was to examine practical and policy issues surrounding the creation and operation of charter schools, to begin...


      (pp. 13-22)

      Charter schools are the liveliest reform in American education. “When I was elected President,” Bill Clinton observed in July 1998, “There was only one such school in the country. . . . We’re well on our way to meeting my goal of creating 3,000 such schools by the beginning of the next century.”¹ Connecticut Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman writes: “Competition from charter schools is the best way to motivate the ossified bureaucracies governing too many public schools. This grass-roots revolution seeks to reconnect public education with our most basic values: ingenuity, responsibility, and accountability.”² An Arizona official terms charter schools...

      (pp. 23-52)

      In this chapter, we briefly survey the charter landscape and then visit five real schools in four states. Nationally, we can spot about 1,700 charter schools in September 1999, located in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Approximately 350,000 children attend them—and all these numbers are rising fast. By mid-1999, 36 states and the District of Columbia had enabling legislation for charter schools. Two and a half times as many such schools were operating in September 1998 than just two years earlier. While the country will not reach President Clinton’s ambitious target of 3,000 schools by century’s end,...

      (pp. 53-73)

      Neither Sarah Kass nor Ann Connelly Tolkoff looks like a subversive bent on undermining public education. Kass came to the Boston area from teaching in the Chicago public schools. Tolkoff was a suburban school committee member and teacher. They met in the Chelsea, Massachusetts public high school where they both taught. Chelsea was so educationally moribund that its school system was taken over by the state and placed under the control of Boston University in the hope that B.U.’s hard-nosed president, John R. Silber, could salvage it.

      After a two-year struggle in Chelsea, both Kass and Tolkoff were desperate for...

      (pp. 74-99)

      How well are America’s charter schools doing? The answers are necessarily tentative. That the most ancient among them are barely seven years old—and the vast majority are in their first few years of operation—means that definitive data are scarce, particularly concerning pupil achievement.¹ Though organizational flaws can sometimes be glimpsed within weeks or months of a school’s launch, no clear judgment can be made about any school’s effectiveness after only a year or two with students. As Arizona State Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan cautions, “I don’t think one claims victory until [one sees] three to five years of...

      (pp. 100-126)

      Deborah Springpeace didn’t realize it, but in July 1996 she was beginning the wildest ride of her life. She had agreed to launch the Seven Hills Charter School (an Edison Project school) in a depressed section of Worcester, Massachusetts. Fortunately, this was not her first time on the education speedway. Certified in three states, Springpeace had taught English in a big inner-city high school, at a halfway house for juvenile offenders, at a Catholic school, and in suburban public schools. She had also been an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and served as a middle school principal for a...

      (pp. 127-148)

      Some view accountability as the third rail of the charter movement, others as the holy grail. Some fear it will lead to the demise of charter schools. Others see it as a desirable but unrealistic goal. In this chapter, we examine the puzzle of charter accountability and suggest a way of piecing it together that has large implications for U.S. public education.

      The chief aim of accountability is to find and sustain good schools while weeding out or repairing bad ones. In the case of conventional public schooling, the main accountability mechanism relies on bureaucratic control from higher levels within...


      (pp. 151-168)

      In Part I, we peered into specific charter schools, surveying their accomplishments and problems. But we are only half done. The charter phenomenon reaches well beyond individual schools and the people they touch directly. It also raises a host of big-picture questions, figures in tough political struggles, alters the practices of entire school districts, bolsters communities, and leaves tracks on American education as a whole. Part II considers these issues.

      The present chapter weighs the caseagainstcharter schools. Any bold reform strategy inevitably gives rise to doubts and objections. Opponents, critics, and anxious interest groups will naturally emerge. Though...

      (pp. 169-191)

      Jim and Fawn Spady don’t look like warriors. An attractive, successful, and energetic young couple living near Seattle, they became deeply frustrated with the local public schools. As Fawn recalls, “When I tried to get involved, one principal said he was happy to have me do bake sales, but nothing that involved academics.”¹ They reluctantly opted for private school for their children, but refused to give up on public schools. Jim explains, “OK, we’ve taken care of our kids. But so many people have no choice; they’re left behind.”²

      In 1995, after the lower house of the state legislature passed...

      (pp. 192-219)

      We have identified four stages in the traditional education system’s typical reaction to charters. The first (“stop them cold”) and second (“keep them few and weak”) of these were the subject of the previous chapter. Now we turn to stages three and four:

      Outdo them: successfully compete with them so as to minimize the number of children leaving district schools for charter schools; and

      Accept them: embrace the charter idea and use it for the system’s own purposes.

      We first visit two districts powerfully affected by the charter movement. Douglas County, Colorado is home to six charter schools enrolling 5...

      (pp. 220-236)

      A water pipe burst days before Colin Powell Academy was scheduled to open in the poorest ZIP code of Detroit, flooding the entire building. It was a charter founder’s worst nightmare. Launching the school would be hard enough—hiring and training teachers, completing the paperwork, and attending to thousands of other details—without such a disaster. But everyone pitched in to rescue the school. The flooding prompted an extraordinary round-the-clock community effort to pump and mop and paint. The crisis engaged parents, students, and others from the neighborhood, including youngsters who had been in trouble with the law. Some say...

      (pp. 237-247)

      The charter movement, as we have seen, is spreading fast. Yet for all the attention showered on them, charter schools are dwarfed by the behemoth of American public education. They educate fewer than one percent of U.S. schoolchildren. Today they are more like scattered specialty shops than ubiquitous convenience stores. Still, they are mostly doing well by those who attend them and are beginning to influence the broader education system that surrounds them. This leads us to wonder about the millions of families whose children are not yet being well educated by the “regular” schools. Will charters evolve into options...

      (pp. 248-264)

      What might the future look like if the charter movement prospers and spreads? In this final chapter, we explore that future, guided by a suspicion that the ideas underlying that movement are those most likely to renew and replenish public education in America.

      Critics will allege that our vision of public education reborn is really public education entombed. They will cite the Vietnam-era blunder of destroying something while claiming to save it. They will contend that charter schools are a grand specimen of what is wrong with contemporary education reform, not a prime example of how to do it right....

    (pp. 265-268)

    We began this book with the belief that the charter idea deserved examination and testing. We now conclude our effort to demystify that idea and show how schooling based on choice, autonomy, and accountability can undergird a new model of public education.

    What makes charter schools appeal to so many families and teachers? What is distinctive about them? What can American education learn from them? In this Epilogue, we discuss ten elements that foster success in individual charter schools and ten larger lessons to be gleaned from the charter experience as a whole.

    These schools are mission-driven, built around a...

    (pp. 269-280)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 281-290)