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Issues at a glance
More on Charter Schools
Kyo Yamashiro and Lisa Carlos, 1995

Table of Contents:

The charter school movement is one of the fastest growing education reforms of the Nineties. In 1992, only two states, California and Minnesota, had passed charter school legislation. By the end of 1995, 19 states had charter school laws in place and at least 16 others had considered similar legislation. At the federal level, Congress passed legislation in 1994 authorizing grants to support states' charter school efforts.

Despite such popular interest, fewer than 250 charter schools are currently operating nationwide. Whether this small but growing number of schools will lead to greater innovation and influence the systemwide transformation of public education remains to be seen. Below is a summary of the issues surrounding charter schools and the implications of recent research about the future of this movement.

What constitutes a charter school?

Charter schools are usually created through a formal agreement between a group of individuals and a sponsor (e.g., a local school board, state department, or an independent governing board). Designed by state legislators who want to deregulate and decentralize education, charter schools are meant to empower parents and those "closest to the classroom" with the flexibility to innovate. As an incentive, charter schools either receive blanket exemptions from most state codes and district rules regarding curriculum, instruction, budget, and personnel, or they may apply to waive requirements one by one.1 In return, most charter schools are expected to meet certain accountability requirements, such as demonstrating student achievement and participating in state testing programs.

Depending on the authorizing legislation, charter schools are organized by teachers (certified or non-certified), parents, existing public schools, private schools,2 non-profit agencies and/or for-profit firms.3 Often, charter schools receive funding from the state based upon student enrollment (i.e., average daily attendance) although the actual allocated amount may vary based upon negotiations and administrative funds charged by local school districts and sponsoring agencies.4

What do supporters of charter schools argue?

Advocates promote charter schools as a way to expand choices and competition in public education, and charter schools are sometimes proposed as an alternative to private school vouchers.5 Charter schools are viewed as a vehicle for revitalizing public education; free of burdensome regulations and codes, they provide other schools with innovative prototypes for success. Unlike most state efforts that attempt to improve schools through mandated practices, charter schools are performance-based: they are free to choose their own approach, but if they are fiscally mismanaged, fail to attract students, or do not meet student accountability standards, their charters can be revoked.6

What do opponents of charter schools argue?

Opponents claim charter schools will draw resources away from schools that have been successfully operating as part of the regular public school system. They maintain that regulations are not the most significant barriers to effectiveness. A lack of resources, technical support, and access to research on effective practices are considered bigger obstacles to stimulating better schools. Moreover, if and when regulations do, in fact, hinder school reform, those particular regulations should be analyzed and modified for the whole school system, rather than waived for one particular school.

Unions and school boards may oppose charter proposals that are not subject to collective bargaining agreements or that establish charter schools as independent legal entities outside a local school board's jurisdiction.

Critics also worry that special education students may not be guaranteed fair treatment or adequate funding unless it is specified within the charter or legislation. Furthermore, critics are concerned that as charters are suspended or revoked due to legal challenges or mismanagement, children enrolled in these schools may suffer a discontinuity in their educational services (Michigan and California have both experienced threats of having to close down a charter school mid-year).7

What are lessons learned from research in the WestEd region and beyond?

Because most states' charter legislation is so new, most experts say it is still too soon to know the impact on schools or students. States farthest along, however, already offer some insights into the types of issues policymakers should deliberate when considering charter reforms. In the WestEd region, two of four states have active charter legislation, California and Arizona. Nevada's legislation is still pending while Utah has yet to have charter legislation proposed.

Research in California, now in the third year of charter implementation, found that those charter schools most interested in gaining genuine independence from local boards and/or in starting from scratch, were also least likely to receive broad support for gaining charter status.8 An implication of this study is that states must find the right balance between autonomy and accountability so that charter schools can really experiment with new alternatives while still being considered part of the public school system. California's example also showed the marked need for states to include start-up funds to cover the resources and time associated with supplying information to the community, designing innovations, and/or navigating complex charter negotiations with districts.

In a more recent study of California's charter schools, researchers have found that parental involvement, whether required by a parental contract signed when admitting the student or not, is much greater in charter schools than in comparison schools in the same communities. The study found that "a major reason charter schools have higher levels of parental involvement may be that the more school-participation-oriented families select themselves into charter school enrollement..."9

Several national studies10 comparing state charter school laws have found significant variance, nationwide, in charter schools' degree of  independence, organization, and instructional practices, as each state's legislation establishes a different degree of autonomy. The legal status of charter schools and their eligibility for federal categorical funding is currently under review. Although public funding generally follows the student, many charter schools have had difficulty in being recognized as an independent school district, thereby considered eligible to receive federal categorical funds.

What is the status of charter schools in the WestEd region and across the country?

Charter schools are considered one of the fastest growing reform movements of the 1990s. Since 1991, 14 states have passed charter school legislation: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Wyoming .11 Meanwhile, proposals for charter school legislation surfaced in at least 16 states this year, including Nevada, Missouri, Indiana, North Carlolina, Connecticut, Idaho, Ohio, Florida, Oregon, and Illinois.12

Since 1993, 85 charters have been assigned a "number" by the California State Department of Education, while others have been approved and await numbering. California charter school advocates attempted to lift the original statutory cap of 100 charter schools this year; however, in May the state legislature decided against raising the limit.

In the short time that Arizona has had their charter school legislation in place (since 1994), they have come quite close to meeting their statewide annual approval limit of 50 charters. To date, 19 charters have been approved by the Arizona State Board of Education, another 25 by the State Charter School Board, and one has been chartered by a school district.

At the federal level, in accordance with the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994, 13 the U.S. Department of Education recently announced the availability of $5.4 million in grants for a public charter schools program and is currently accepting applications from state educational agencies and other eligible "developers" of charter school proposals. 14


State Board of Education.: (602) 542-5393
State Charter School Board: (602) 542-5094
California : (916) 657- 2451
Dave Patterson : (916) 657-2516
Colorado : (303) 866-6806
Bill Windler : (303) 866-6631
Florida (904) 487-1785;
Bruiser Brown: (904) 413-9709
Georgia (404) 656-2534;
Charter School Office: (404) 656-0630
Hawaii, Greg Knudsen: (808) 586- 3230
Illinois (217) 782-2221
Sally Vogel: (217) 782-0541
Kansas (913) 296-3201
Legal Services: (913)296-3204
Louisiana (504) 342-4411
Gary Reed: (504) 342-3745
Massachusetts (617) 770-7321
Michigan (517) 373- 3354
Gary Cass: (517) 373-4631
Minnesota (612) 296-2358
William Allen: (612) 296-4213
Nevada (702) 687-3100
Legislative HotLine: (702) 687-5545
New Mexico (505) 827-6516
Rich Lapan: (505) 827-6625
Wisconsin (608) 266-1771
Sue Freiss: (608) 266-1647
Wyoming (307) 777-7675
Jim Lendino: (307) 777-6268

1 In the 14 states that have passed charter school legislation, at least nine states exempt participating schools from most state and district rules usually with the exception of health, safety, civil rights laws, special education and state assessment. Other states require schools to apply for rule by rule waivers or specify in their charter which rules they want to waive. For a further analysis, see: Bierlein, L.A. and Mullholland, L.A. (September 1994), Comparing Charter School Laws: The Issue of Autonomy. Morrison Institute for Public Policy, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University.

2 Arizona and Minnesota are two states which allow nonsectarian private schools to participate.

3 Two of Massachusetts' 15 charter schools (the Lowell and Worcester Charter Schools) are co- operated by for-profit entrepreneur Chris Whittle's company, the Edison Project.

4 In California, some districts withhold administrative funds. In others, charter schools have negotiated for greater fiscal autonomy. For a further discussion of these issues see: Premack, E. and Diamond, L. (January 1994). Charter School Implementation Challenges, Discussion Paper #1, Berkeley, CA: BW Associates.

5 Many in California, including Gary Hart, former California Senator and author of the California Charter School legislation, have claimed that charter schools were a preferred alternative to voucher proposals.

6 Los Angeles Unified School District board was the first to revoke a charter school on the grounds of low enrollment and mismanaged finances. The school was forced to close temporarily, giving the school's board of governors a chance to reorganize and reapply. Schmidt, P. (1994). "Citing Debts, L.A. Board Revokes School's Charter." Education Week, December 14, p. 3.

7 (See end note #5). In Michigan, while the state appealed a court's ruling of unconstitutionality, the district assigned by the state to serve as a conduit for state funding declined immediate sponsorship of the charter school until further information was gathered (regarding legal liabilities, union representation, and county-wide opinions of charter schools). The district later agreed to sponsor the charter school, but in the meantime parents and students were unsure of whether their school would be forced to close mid-year. Richardson, J. (1995). "Academy Gets Funds, Won't Close Its Doors". Detroit Free Press, January 27.

8 Charter schools in large urban, as opposed to smaller rural, districts were more interested in real independence but least likely to gain approval from their local school board (a requirement by California law) and support from their union. Dianda, M.R. and Corwin, R.G. (1994). Vision versus Reality: a First-Year Look at California's Charter Schools. Los Alamitos, CA: Southwest Regional Laboratory. Learning from California's experience, Arizona decided to provide the opportunity to by-pass local boards and allow charters to be approved through a special, independent board.

9 Becker, H.J., Nakagawa, K. and Corwin, R. (April, 1995). Parent Involvement Contracts in Califonria's Charter Schools: Strategies for Education Improvement or Method of Exclusion? Los Alamitos, CA: Southwest Regional Laboratory.

10 General Accounting Office. (1995). Charter Schools: New Model for Public Schools Provides Opportunities and Challenges; Bierlein, L. and Mulholland, L. (1994). Charter School Update: Expansion of a Viable Reform Initiative.

11 As of June 1995,10 of the 14 states had approved charter schools. Alaska, Kansas, Louisiana and Wyoming have passed legislation but have yet to approve any schools (GAO, 1995; phone interviews with State Department officials).

12 Pipho, C. (June, 1995). The Expected and the Unexpected. Stateline. Phi Delta Kappan.

13 Congressional Record. (1994). Proceedings and Debates of the 103rd Congress, Second Session. Sept. 28, vol. 140, no. 138, part II. This is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965; Federal Register. May 9, 1995. U.S. Government Printing Office.

14 Federal Register. May 9, 1995. U.S. Government Printing Office.

This document is an addendum to research compiled for a Policy Brief, entitled Charter Schools.

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