A Choice Experiment 

Charter schools’ hype outpaces results

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000


California‘s charter schools have won the unqualified and often uncritical endorsement of forces all across the political spectrum. The Weekly’s three-part series examines this new wave of school reform. Articles and letters to the editor can be found at www.laweekly.com.

November 10:

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California‘s controversial innovation:

The home-school charter.


Despite promise, the reality is not equal to the hype.

December 28:

Charter schools: The picture in Los Angeles.

Just imagine the scandal: a California public school that spurns computers, thumbs its nose at heavy-duty phonics for first-graders and fails to emphasize formal reading until the third grade.

What’s more, this school‘s core philosophy dates back to a spiritual, quasi-religious leader who embraced bizarre concepts, some of them blatantly racist.

An ”outrage“ like this would run Page 1, above the fold.

Or so you might think.

A handful of California public schools already resemble this description. But there’s no scandal, because not a single student is forced to attend. All the participating families choose to enroll their children. These schools are Waldorf-style schools, which appeal to many parents for their developmental approach to learning and their emphasis on arts and crafts, music, exploration and creative play. They have entered the public school system the only way they could, as charter schools, which are exempt from many Education Code requirements and are free to students, just like other public schools.

The concept of a ”choice“ school is the defining element of California‘s 8-year-old charter-school experiment. The movement embodies a boggling array of choices. The most obvious is the freedom for parents to select a public school, but there’s also the opportunity for teachers to run their own campus, for a school district to skirt English-only laws, or for an entrepreneur to set out his own schoolhouse shingle -- whether the goal be to change the world or nab a quick buck. It works this way: The local, county or state school board grants a charter that allows a new or existing school to govern itself and exempts that school from many provisions of the Ed Code. In exchange, school operators abide by a contract that sets out the school‘s mission, achievement goals and method of operation.

The charter-school phenomenon is a revolution of educational anarchy, or libertarianism, if you will, tied together by the rhetoric of reform and high standards. Supporters contend that charters will compel regular schools to improve or perish, applying a healthy dose of competitive American capitalism to a lethargic, failing, government-run bureaucracy.

This is a heady time for charter schools in California, one of the first states to allow them. This state has the second-most charters in the nation, as well as those with the largest enrollment; every month, five to 10 new schools are registered with the state. And with last month’s passage of Proposition 39, charter schools will, for the first time, be eligible for school-construction bonds. Lack of money for school sites has been a major stumbling block.

And last week, for the first time, the state Board of Education approved a charter petition that had been denied by both a local school and county education officials. In fact, the state board approved two such charters, one of which, the Oakland Military Academy, is a pet project of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and was personally endorsed by Governor Gray Davis.

California‘s charter schools enter this era of opportunity with ideologically based testimonials, but little actual evidence that they’ve significantly improved the state‘s system of schools. Frankly, it’s difficult to derive meaning from this anarchic shadow school system.

A few things are clear. So far, charter schools have brought to California a scattershot of educational options that have undeniably benefited certain clienteles in certain places. Overall, about 103,000 students, or 1.7 percent of California‘s 6 million students, are enrolled in charters. Sometimes, the actual differences between charter schools and traditional ones are only superficial, or not related to charter-school status. And in some instances, different has not meant better.

Moreover, the accountability aspect has not caught up with the choice paradigm. Rhetoric aside, charter schools have not collectively embraced a capitalist perform-or-die mantra. The essential construct remains choice uber alles. Whether the movement ultimately results in anything else of lasting importance is up for grabs. And while school choice itself is a fine thing for those families with access to it, research suggests that taxpayer-financed, free-market schooling can have downsides -- if, for example, newly hatched schools squander or misuse state funds, or if these choices are distributed unequally, or if one family’s choice comes at the expense of another family‘s opportunity for a quality education.

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