Guest Column

A Cautionary Word About Charters

Viewpoint by Joe Schneider

What this country needs is an honest debate about charter schools. What we have, instead, are charter-school zealots spewing testimonials.

The truth is, nobody knows if the charter school movement is a success. All we know for sure is that independent charter schools (as opposed to those that operate in partnership with a school district) are particularly popular with a crowd that doesn't much like public schools. Their loudest cheerleader, Chester E. Finn Jr., says he's visited a handful of independent charter schools and therefore can justifiably proclaim: "They look, sound, and smell successful; therefore, they're successful." Wonderful. Call it the "new-car smell" approach to school-reform validation.

It's important to understand how zealots distinguish between what they call "independent" and "clone" charter schools. The independents are the "true" charter schools. The others waving the charter banner are little better than regular "government schools."

In fact, different kinds of charters do exist. The U.S. Department of Education defines them as "pre-existing public," "pre-existing privates," and "newly created."

Pre-existing publics generally enjoy a good working relationship with the sponsoring school board and superintendent. For this reason, charter-school zealots dismiss these schools as mere "clones."

The second group consists of private schools that wanted to attract tuition-paying students and found the charter movement to be a minor bonanza.

The third group, the one hyped by the advocates, consists of newly created schools. They're the cowboys of the movement. Depending on the laxity of their home state laws, these charters can range from look-alike public schools to nothing anyone would characterize as a school. Arizona is home to most of these cowboy charters.

Regardless of label, they're all too new, too untested, and too diverse for anybody--scholar or pundit--to truthfully say they're boosting their students' achievement. Enough is known, though, to make some tentative observations.

For example, the failure rate of new charters is troublesome. Failure, one might assume, would trouble the advocates. Not the least. They ask: "Isn't it better for a school to fail and be closed than to fail and continue to operate, as so often happens with the regular schools?"

But hold on: Why should we tolerate failing charter schools? If anything, we ought to have higher expectations for them. After all, they have attributes that characterize successful schools.

That is, they're small. Really small. Sixty percent have fewer than 200 students. The newly created charter schools tend to be the smallest. And they demand and obtain high parental involvement. Furthermore, the kids, teachers, and principals are there because they want to be.

Give any regular public school these same conditions and you've laid the foundation for major gains in student achievement, lower dropout rates, and higher parental satisfaction.

Despite their advantages, the potential of failure is a recurring theme among charter zealots. The reason? Newly created charter schools enroll many students who had a hard time succeeding in a regular school.

Here's how Finn describes the problem: "Many charter pupils are 'square peg' kids who do not readily fit into the round holes of conventional schools." Thus they're in charter schools. That worries Finn. He even suggests that savvy administrators might be encouraging these "square peg" kids to transfer to a charter school "as a way for superintendents to off-load their most nettlesome problems."

Given this student population, zealots are soft peddling the notion that all charter schools will raise achievement. In fact, they say, some will fail. And that's okay.

Well, it's not okay with us. Charter schools blessed with advantages most regular schools just dream about should have no excuse for failing.

We need to cut through the zealots' self-congratulatory praise and monitor these new schools. Written into every charter-school law is the expectation they will increase student achievement. Those that do it ought to be congratulated and, to the extent possible, their practices ought to be replicated. Those that fail and close deserve to be scorned, and their apologies to the children they enrolled made part of the public record.

Educating children isn't a job for cowboys.