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What are charter schools?
Your question about charter schools is very timely, in that a new national review of charter schools has just been distributed. In about 20 years charter schools have grown from a casual idea to what might be called a major movement in education reform, though one that is not without its detractors.

Although they are part of public education, charter schools grew out of parents’ dissatisfaction with certain aspects of instruction in standard public schools. You might say they represent the trend in America to privatize some of our major services. Although they are part of public education and receive their money from the state, they are exempt from some of the bureaucratic regulations in regular public schools. Most originate from an idea to improve the educability of children who fail to perform up to age and grade standards. The “ideas” vary widely: basing most instruction on computer technology; using music, art and dance as major teaching approaches; “no frills” phonics training and basic math skills; consistent use of behavior modification techniques to reinforce good study habits and academic advance, etc.

There are now about 2,700 charter schools in America serving roughly 700,000 children. California and Arizona have the largest number of such schools. Except for big cities, there will usually be at most one charter school in a given area. My state, Arkansas, has 11 scattered over the state, with only one in Little Rock.

The claims made for what charter schools could accomplish if given more freedom have, in general, not been substantiated. In fact, one of the major points in the recent report is that procedures for demonstrating accountability of the charter schools have not been put in place. Within the last three years, some states have nullified charters for some of their schools because of failure to achieve goals. In 2000, children in charter schools in Texas were given the Texas Academic Achievement Tests along with children in regular public schools. Only 37 percent of the charter school children, in contrast to 80 percent of the children in regular schools, passed the test. Similarly, three schools in Washington, D.C. had their charters revoked because of disciplinary or academic problems. Such results do not, however, give you information on whether such schools had a much higher incidence of “difficult” children or whether drop-out rates are reduced.

You mention that you are moving. When you get to your destination, call the local school district and talk to someone about charter schools in the area. If there is one, call it and arrange a visit. If you get a run-around, or an outright refusal to allow you to visit, there’s the most important cue you could have. It tells you right off to look elsewhere.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education