Since President Clinton signed into law, H. R. 2616, the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998 charter schools have been providing an alternative for parents of public school students (Lin, Q., 2001, p.2). To date, charter schools enroll over 500,000 students (Fusarelli, 2002, p. 1). Charter schools have been favorable because it is believed that they can provide for a way to enhance student achievement by serving students who have been under-served by the public schools (Fusarelli, 2002). There is a belief that by creating a competitive educational system, public schools will undergo significant reforms in response to the threat (Franklin, 2002). Because parents of charter school students have made the choice for their children to attend a charter school, it is believed that parents will become more involved in their childs education (Hammer, 2003). Charter schools in many states are exempt from many state mandates (Fusarelli, 2002, p. 2). As a result of these exemptions, charter schools also have more flexibility for the administrators when hiring teachers and running a school. They are able to provide higher salaries for teachers working in hard to fill teaching positions (Finn, Kanstoroom, 2002).
On the flip side of the issue, charter schools have been destined to fail due to the lack of funding and their limited resources resulting from poor planning. Charter schools are often believed to be operated by self appointed leaders accused of lacking adequate skills to establish quality charter schools (Self, 2002). Because of their newness to the educational arena, little is known about their long-term effectiveness (Lubienski, 2003).
Charter schools are independent public schools of choice. Finn (1996) writes that researchers find that the best charter schools have near total independence to decide what and how to teach, whom to hire and how to use their resources, hours of operation, and how best to meet students’ needs. One would assume that many charter schools are enjoying the flexibility and success of operating a school of choice. However, charters are also held accountable in a way that regular public schools are not. When a charter school experiences severe troubles, it usually faces severe consequences. To date, more than 200 failed or failing charter schools have been closed on fiscal, educational, and organizational grounds.
In terms of curriculum and assessment practices in charter schools, deMarrais ; LeCompte (1999) state that charter schools may focus on a particular approach, theme, or curriculum such as schools for outdoor experiences, music and the arts, and science and mathematics. However, charters, like their public school counterparts, are highly accountable for improving students’ performance levels. Many charter schools are subjected to the statewide assessment programs to the same extent as other public schools. According to the Texas Education Agency Division of Charter Schools web page (2003), open enrollment charter schools are subject to some, but not all, of the curriculum requirements that apply to independent school districts. For example, their educational programs must include the curriculum required by Texas Education Code section 28.002; implement reading diagnosis and accelerated reading instruction programs as required by Texas Education Code section 28.002; and adhere to the graduation standards of Texas Education Code section 28.025. Many states differ in following such guidelines. Henry (1997), reports that nearly half of parents, who said their children performed “poorly” in their previous schools, now say the students are doing “excellent” or “above average” work in their charter schools. In Massachusetts, the test scores of charter schools on the Spring 2002 state test showed, according to the Boston Herald, “a greater number of improved scores …with more and more of the charters scores higher than their home districts.” Investigators tracking such scores acknowledge that these findings may be due to the fact that charters are attracting “students who were already low achieving”, a suspicion supported by other studies that find charter students to be relatively disadvantaged (Manno, 2003).
An important question remains- Are charter schools meeting their main purpose of improving student learning and achievement? According to a report by the National Education Association of New York (2003), it is impossible to tell. In some Charter Schools, the pace of improvement on the fourth-grade English Language Arts and Math tests has been rapid and impressive, in others; student progress is coming in fits and starts. A few Charters appear to be very weak, calling into question the educational approach of the charter school. Charter schools that, at this point, appear to be on the right track deserve credit for their achievement. Nothing is more important than holding students to high academic standards and improving achievement. Real, measurable gains in student performance are to be applauded, whether they occur in experimental charter schools or in more traditional public schools.
In many states funding is based on enrollment. Loss of students to charter school account for loss of state subsidies. To avoid this problem many other states have included a hold harmless program that protects districts from budgetary losses owning to enrollment from competition (Rofes, 1998: Schmeider et al., 2000) as stated in Hess, Maranto, and Milliman (Winter, 2001). Some districts are losing over 50 percent of their state funding per pupil who transfer from public schools. In Arizona, district schools have lost state funding equivalent to 57% per pupil for every student who has transferred from the district to charter schools. This is a major concern, especially considering the other major cuts the government has imposed on the schools. Maranto (Wint 2001) states that because of this public schools are in competition with charter schools.
In conclusion, many frustrated teachers, parents, and other stakeholders believe that government is not in a position to provide solutions to improve education because the traditional government structures and mandates are, they believe, a large part of the problem (Chubb & Moe, 1990). A real solution, they offer, is to reinvent the system by which we provide and run public education; a reinvented system of choice, flexibility, and accountability that includes the creation of charter schools. Communities are invited to create new public schools with high levels of autonomy to be innovative in ways that may or may not embrace traditional educational structures. These schools are invited to take new and uncharted paths, but also are held responsible for ensuring that these paths lead to educational success for students.