How do we improve our schools? There is general agreement, with some notable exceptions, that our schools need improvement. Is there a panacea or a quick fix? No. But there are some good ideas percolating that are worth pursuing.
One of these is charter schools. The charter school concept is very young and still in the process of development. One might call it an adolescent in the school reform movement. The first charter school was not opened until 1991 in Minnesota, followed by California in 1992. Eventually there were 4,484 charter schools. But only 250,000 students. That represents just 8% of public school students in 26 states.
What exactly is a charter school? The official definition according to a recent report is: “Charter schools are public schools that come into existence through a contract with either a state agency or a local school board. The difference between a charter school and a regular public school is that the school achieves autonomy over its operation and is freed from most regulations. In return for its flexibility, the school is held accountable for achieving goals established in the charter and improving student performance.”
Some of the criticism of charter schools is that they are anti-union, attract an elite and are not sufficiently accountable. In regard to elitism, in many states charter schools enroll more students of color than public schools. Charter schools also enroll a higher percentage of children with free or reduced price lunches ¿ the key indicator of poverty. Most charter schools are small. Median enrollment in charter schools in 137 students per school. For public school, that number is 475.
What are the advantages of such schools? Charter schools with their emphasis on flexibility and autonomy open the door to innovation. Parents, teachers and community members who get excited about a new curriculum, new class schedules, new methods of teaching, have an opportunity to make it happen. Innovation in education is often a missing ingredient. Schools are one of our oldest institutions. They are also the most difficult to change. I believe it would be healthy for public education to further open the door to innovation in education. Traditional public schools could then have models of success to incorporate in their own schools.
What is the future of charter schools? In Vermont, the former commissioner of education was in favor of charter schools. The present commissioner is opposed. The jury is clearly out. Yes, charter schools are risky. It is not easy to either start a new school or convert a public school. Neither is it simple to work with so many stakeholders in the community. But that is the point. These schools are genuine community schools which reflect the values and ideas of all the players. I believe Vermont should join the 37 other states which have charter school legislation. It’s one modest step we can take to discover new and better ways of educating our children.
Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.