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INSIDE CHARTER SCHOOLS: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization.

INSIDE CHARTER SCHOOLS: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization edited by Bruce Fuller Harvard University Press, $29.95

Uncharted Waters

IN THE SUMMER OF 1997, AS COOL wisps of fog swept across Berkeley's warm hillsides, Bruce Fuller kindly agreed to come indoors and host a week-long summit conference on charter schools. Fuller is an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has a sharp eye for the contradictions in education policy and a well-developed sense of humor, which he needed once the conference got underway.

After presenting what he thought was an even-handed account of the strengths and weaknesses of the charter school movement, Fuller found speakers for rival factions gleefully uniting to skin him alive. The director of an ultra-conservative San Francisco think tank asked why he was so worried about faith-based charters being publicly accountable. "Isn't it time that we really question the wisdom of separating church from state?" the man asked. The next questioner was the parent organizer of a Los Angeles charter school. He took Fuller apart for making critical points that the young man thought smelled of the rotting educational establishment.

Fuller decided to assemble the thinking of others like himself caught in the middle of the often information-starved debate. The number of charter schools--tax-funded institutions that operate independently of public school bureaucracies--was growing rapidly, especially in California. But no one knew if they were doing much good. Fuller worried that their popularity foretold the disintegration of the public school system and the sense of community that was a vital part of growing up in America.

In this book Fuller offers six essays--as much works of journalism as they are academic pieces--on six very different charter school experiments. University of San Francisco Professor Patty Yancey looks at the growth of the El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Academy in Lansing, Michigan. Teachers and graduate students Edward Wexler and Luis Huerta recount the difficult history of the Latino Amigos Charter Academy near Oakland. New York Times reporter Kate Zernicke describes the creation of a charter school in an affluent suburb of Boston. UCLA Professor Amy Stuart Wells and research associates Jennifer Jellison Holme and Ash Vasudeva probe the difficulties of a wealthy Southern California suburb that created a charter school and invited in transfer students from less affluent minority neighborhoods. Huerta tells how Sierra foothill Christians and Bay Area libertarians produced a charter school for homeschoolers. And California State University, Humboldt, Professor Eric Rofes relates the bizarre story of how farmers and teachers in depressed rural Minnesota created a school organized as a cooperative.

Fuller deftly ties the grab-bag together with his own opening and closing thoughts on the philosophical and political tension between allowing free-thinkers to experiment and maintaining a community commitment to free and equitable education for all. "In experimenting with radical decentralization, we must avoid eroding the basic tenets of civil society in ways that weaken the state's ability to attack the underlying causes of low achievement and mediocre public schools," he says. "If charter schools prove not to be an effective piece in the school reform puzzle but only a colorful distraction, we will have squandered the energy of many engaged parents and teachers, and the democratic state's unifying spirit will have been diminished."

The impression left by these case studies fits the research so far: Charter school children, as a whole, are not doing any better than similar children in regular schools. Nor is there much evidence that the growth of charter schools is making regular schools better. Charter-school advocates have long said that regular schools would be forced to respond to the competitive pressure, but regular-school improvements in recent years seem largely motivated by new state learning standards and tests, not the new charter schools in the neighborhood.

The book provides a useful benchmark for a movement that in many ways is just getting started. Fuller places its beginning in 1988, when American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker first publicized the ideas of educational innovator Ray Budde. There are some disquieting insights, such as the fact that the charter schools with the most disadvantaged students seem to have the greatest organizational and financial problems. But the book also offers some fresh ideas, like the Minnesota New Country School profiled by Rofes.

In September 1994, the charter school opened in two storefronts in Le Sueur, Minn., with 75 students. Instead of the four teachers being employees of the local school district or of the company running the school, the usual charter school set-up, they were organized as the EdVisions teacher cooperative, inspired by agricultural cooperatives of that area. They were the legal owners of the educational program of the school, free to sell their time and expertise to others as they saw fit.

The book indicates such innovative approaches are not the rule in every charter school. Some traditional teaching is done because that is what the parents and faculty want. But it is hard to imagine experiments like EdVisions being launched anywhere but a charter. One can hope, however, that radical decentralization, whatever its flaws, will serve as a laboratory for a variety of original devices that all schools may someday find useful.

JAY MATHEWS is an education reporter and columnist for THE WASHINGTON POST.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Mathews, Jay
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:880
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