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A charter for change.

In East Los Angeles, about a mile and a half from the site of the Rodney King riots, sits Vaughn Street School. Most of the children at this elementary school speak English as their second language and live in neighborhoods most of us would be frightened to walk through. There was a time when the children had to step around a dead body as they approached the school's entryway. It was no one's idea of a healthy learning environment.

In 1992, Vaughn Street's pupils ranked in the ninth percentile in reading -- 91 percent of public school students in America could read better than they -- and the 14th percentile in math. Now, reading and math scores rank in the 47th and 59th percentile respectively. Today, students learn about computers hands-on in the new, $1.6 million Next Century Learning Center. Today, parents from more wealthy neighborhoods want to send their kids to Vaughn.

What spurred the overwhelming changes in this 1,200-pupil, inner-city public school? According to Vaughn Street Principal Yvonne Chan, it was freedom from bureaucracy. "Take off the handcuffs; free my hands so I can do my job," Chan said in Seattle's Rainier Club where she was the keynote speaker this past fall at the National Conference on School Choice, sponsored by Washington's Educational Excellence Coalition.

Vaughn Street Elementary School became California's first charter school in 1992. And it is the charter school law that Chan credits for providing the freedom she needed to turn the school around. In addition to test scores, attendance improved -- so much so that the school receives an additional $300,000 per year in per-pupil allotments from the state. Volunteers from the community built a low wall around the school to signify its separation from its troubled surroundings. And family programs such as health services and child care are available in school facilities so parents with few transportation options can get one-stop help.

Family involvement is a key ingredient in Vaughn's success, says Chan. "My school is an inner-city school. Many parents are immigrants, and families live in garages. They have little money. But they put their kids first."

Although California's charter law allows the hiring of noncertified teachers, the decision makers at Vaughn Street School (Chan and the teachers -- as a team) choose to employ teachers who are certified. They have a good relationship with the teacher's union. After all, they have the same goal: teaching kids well. Still, Vaughn has Street some money by hiring more new teachers than the typical California public school -- something the charter law allows them to do.

And money is an issue. In the first year of operation as a charter school, freedom to make budgeting decisions led to the $1.6 million savings, which paid for the new 14-classroom technology building -- the Next Century Learning Center. In addition to savings on salaries, Chan negotiated contracts for meals, payroll preparation and transportation that provided equal or better service quality at less than school district costs.


California was the second state to pass charter school law. Minnesota was first in 1991, and 17 other states have followed their lead. Yet it remains to be seen if charter schools are a good route to education reform

By definition, a charter school is an autonomous public school; a free-standing, nonprofit entity run by a group of parents, teachers, businesspeople or, in some cases, universities. Their strength is lodged in their autonomy. Under strong state charter laws, the schools are directed only by their selfselected governing boards. Their goals for education are written in the charters. Local school boards play a minimal role once the charter is granted. They do not hire or fire personnel for charter schools. They cannot dictate budget or curriculum.

Accountability for charter schools is twofold: First, if they don't meet the goals set forth in the charter, the charter can be revoked, Second, parents can vote with their feet. And with each child who leaves the school goes the state funding for that child's education.

The missing link is a tangible success rate displayed through graphs, charts and numbers. Charter and education experts agree it's too soon to know how or even if charter schools are truly reforming education. Will other schools achieve successes like Vaughn Street or is the Los Angeles school a grand exception -- the product of Yvonne Chan's unfailing leadership?

Even in Minnesota, the state that pioneered charters in 1991, it's too early to tell how these new schools are doing, too soon to fully judge their impact on state education, according to Representative Becky Kelso, the author of the House charter bill.

Kelso does say she's pleased with what has happened over the last four years. And she believes that the 17 charter schools in her state are reshaping public education "to a degree."


What Kelso finds amazing, is the number of states that leapt into the charter pool without waiting to see how Minnesota's program worked out. "It's been surprising flow one state [Minnesota] passing charter school legislation has had the hole-in-the-dam effect that it has had. I'm surprised at the number of states that passed similar legislation so quickly."

Apparently, the charter school concept fit the expectations of lawmakers eager to change an educational system that has not responded to less drastic reforms such as lengthening the school year or creating school-based decision making teams that are granted limited autonomy from state regulations.

Actually, charter schools are the outgrowth of three factors --" the recognition that all children can learn, but not in the same way and at the same rate; the desire to have schools become more flexible and malleable to meet the needs of students instead of students meeting the needs of the school; and the polarizing effects of school voucher proposals," say, Mark Weston of the Education Commission of the States.

It is true that charter school laws have received bipartisan support uncommon in debates over vouchers where state funding goes directly to families to use as they see fit in the education of their children -- in or outside of the public school system.

"With vouchers, opponents like the teachers' unions were coming off the walls," says Ohio Senator Cooper Snyder. Ohio passed the nation's second school voucher bill this year after much struggle. In the meantime, Snyder sponsored charter school legislation to complement, or back up, the private school choice option. "We cannot succeed by constantly trying to change an entrenched system," he says. "We can succeed by empowering parents, teachers and community leaders through community [charter] schools."

Charter schools do appear to have that capacity. Many parents -- particularly those from low-income neighborhoods -- are intimidated by the layers of bureaucracy inherent in the current system. Charter schools eliminate the distance between the parent and the school's decision makers and often require parental input before certain decisions (the hiring of a principal, for instance) can be made. Parents may feel more empowered, more eager and generally more able to participate in their child's education at these schools.


More than a decade after A Nation at Risk broadsided American public education, legislatures are still seeking ways to improve schooling in this country. Change has been slow, particularly for inner-city schools where children arguably need the most assistance. In urban Cleveland schools, 30 percent of the high school seniors can't pass a ninth grade proficiency test; 65 percent of all students who started school as freshmen three years ago have dropped out, according to red Kolderie of the Minnesota Center for Policy Studies, known as the guru of the charter school movement.

Kolderie contends that the education system in most states is designed to fail. "The states have created a deal where the school district is assured of everything it wants. It's the only learning company in town. Money comes in from the state; mandatory attendance ensures that it will have the kids; and districting rules make sure it has a monopoly."

Therefore, Kolderie says, when the legislature starts talking about "doing hard things, about reform, about making changes" schools have no compelling reason to comply. "The customers, jobs and security are all there anyway."

But "the superintendents, the school boards, the administrators didn't create the problem," he emphasizes. "The legislature built it, and the legislature can change it."

Representative Kelso, a former school board member, observes that there have been local school boards that have "changed the way they functioned because of a charter school in the district or a proposal for a charter school." One example involves a school board that consistently denied requests for the addition of a public Montessori school within the district. When members of the community decided to seek a charter for the school, the board reversed its decision and accepted the school as part of the regular system.


A school system can't take its customers for granted when alternatives are offered. "Charter schools are breaking up the monopoly," Kelso says. "They are a source of competition." This is particularly true in school districts where many families can't afford private schools.

The hope is that by inserting free market conditions into the system, even in a limited fashion, the behavior and attitudes of public school administrators and staff will change. "It makes the district more amenable to proposals of change from teachers and parents," Kolderie says. But change brings risk, many good teachers and administrators contend. "Charter schools are a big change in the traditional arrangements," "Kolderie points out. " Everybody's starting point is 'no way,' and most people are very uncomfortable with changes in the system."

Patterns in the granting of charters prove this contention true. In states where local boards are the only entity that OKs charters and where there is no avenue for appeal, very few charters have been granted. Evidence in California has shown that district administrators and school boards are least supportive of charter schools that seek the most independence. States that allow a number of avenues for charter approval, on the other hand, have yielded more charter schools. In Michigan, if a charter request is denied by the local district, organizers can go to the state or a university for sponsorship. Another option is to put the proposal on a school district election ballot.

"The idea is to free up charters from state laws and regulations. But in most instances, the biggest obstacles are at the local level, "explains former California Senator Gary K. Hart, who wrote the state's charter legislation in 1992. "The district is unwilling to give charter schools autonomy. There are sometimes endless, sometimes frustrating numbers of hassles, between the charter and the district office."

Florida Representative Joe Tedder, whose original charter legislation was doomed by a Senate and House scrap over the state's Omnibus Education Bill to which it was attached, says that the bill he will reintroduce this session "provides leverage [through an appeals process] so that a school board must consider a good educational program." Wisconsin amended its charter school law last session, adding an appeal process to counter what was perceived as a lack of cooperation by local boards.


People oppose charters for different reasons, depending on their position in the system. Some superintendents oppose charters, viewing them as an insult -- an assertion that they are not doing a good job as educators. School boards seem to resent the loss of control. Teachers' concerns center on the fact that charters can be established to sidestep collective bargaining, tenure or certification requirements. In three states, teacher certification is not required, but employee qualifications must be specified in the charter.

Union attitudes, Kolderie says, are shaped by the image of teachers as employees. "But it's now beginning to dawn on people that teachers can own learning programs and can contract with a district to supply such things as math or history. They also have the option to work with colleagues as a group, as partners in the education a school offers."

"Charter schools are run by the employees," Kelso explains. "The employer-employee setup that collective bargaining and negotiations are based on is not there. It's a departure from the old 'school board as employer.'"

Not all state legislators are sold on the idea, either. In Virginia, charter legislation proposed by the new governor never got out of committee. Instead, a joint House and Senate study commission is meeting now. Senator Elliot Schewel, who proposed the study resolution, thinks that changes in the fundamental structure of school operations may lead to constitutional problems. If Virginia moves ahead with charter schools, he favors "a trial period for two or three pilot projects to see how they work."


When charter school legislation was originally posed in Minnesota, Kelso says a firestorm resulted. But, so far, many of the scenarios laid out by critics appear invalid. "There are groups that would like to see the Minnesota charter school movement fail," Kelso admits. "But many of the original fears have proved unfounded."

Much of the intense opposition she saw when the proposal was broached four years ago has "all but disappeared."

The schools have not drained top faculty and students from public schools. (In California, Colorado, Kansas and Wisconsin, charter schools that target students at risk of school failure receive preference for approval.) And four years later, people have stopped worrying that charter schools were the first step to a voucher system. They are not, Kelso says, private schools receiving tax money. "The public schools in Minnesota are healthy and strong enough to withstand competition from charters. Charter schools are not threatening the quality of public education, they are enhancing it."


Charter schools do offer a new model for autonomous public schools that provides opportunities for diverse and innovative approaches to education. Yet if the political conflicts inherent in today's education policy debates lead to watered-down laws that provide limited autonomy, charter schools may fail.

Much depends on the will of lawmakers to insist on real change in the education system. Cooperation from state and local board members is another major factor. With a strong base of support, states like Minnesota have weathered opposition. As Representative Kelso notes, "If acceptance is a measure of success, charter schools have been successful. The opposition that was really intense four years ago has melted away."
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Title Annotation:charter schools
Author:Gordon, Dianna
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Previous Article:Legislative leaders focus on block grants.
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