A promising middle ground, however, is capturing support as a way to reform schools from within the system. With 25 states plus the District of Columbia now authorizing ''charter schools,'' about 500 have emerged since 1993, and the number is expected to mushroom. To Joe Nathan, author of Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education, the groundswell is ''all about hope and possibility.''
What's the appeal? Charters--which are typically granted by school boards, sometimes requiring the nod of teachers' unions--let educators, parents, and community groups take public funds and create a school that's free of most of the bureaucratic woes of traditional schools. In return for considerable management and pedagogical freedom, the schools must meet tough academic and financial standards or risk having their charters revoked. Nathan's book is a quick tour through a number of these institutions. And it provides eloquent parent and teacher testimony about the urgent need for change and the excitement at breaking free. A former public school teacher who heads the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Nathan applauds charters' encouragement of ''entrepreneurs'' to come forward in competition with the school monopoly.
Nathan admits that it's too early to claim success for the charters. But what's striking about the anecdotal evidence he cites is that schools from Boston to San Diego are taking some of the hardest cases around--kids who are poor, underachieving, and often from broken families--and, in many cases, sharply improving their performance. The secret? Nathan says the new schools' freedom from red tape attracts some of the most highly motivated teachers, administrators, and parents and lets them get on with the task of education, often employing more hands-on methods in smaller classes.
In surveying more than 100 schools, Nathan also draws useful lessons from the successful ones. He finds there's still resistance from old-line bureaucrats and union members who fear, often rightly, their power will slip away. Therefore, at the outset, charter advocates should enlist support from a range of constituencies, including unions and business, and then seek the widest freedom possible to set salaries and length of school day and year. Are charters a panacea? By no means, Nathan says. But Nathan does make a convincing case that this is one big experiment among many that is deservedly taking root.
By Richard A. Melcher
Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.