Charter schools are sweeping the country. Thirty-three states have passed charter school legislation, and across the nation some 800 charter schools are up and running, enrolling upward of 170,000 kids. The schools come in various sizes and flavors, from the staunchly traditional to the ultra-left wing. Their basic idea is simple: a school receives a "charter" from a school board, state education department, a university, or other agency to run for a limited time (usually five years), and it must meet strict performance standards to get its charter renewed. As long as they meet the standards, these schools—public and open to all comers—are free to skirt suffocating school district regulations and union work rules. In some states they can hire bright but uncertified teachers, just as exclusive private schools do. Most crucially, if they don't deliver, dissatisfied parents can take their kids—and the public money that accompanies them—elsewhere.

New York just squandered a golden opportunity to join the growing list of charter states. A surprising constellation of forces—a Republican governor with his eye on national office, a handful of deep-pocketed Wall Streeters, and a fiercely committed band of minority activists and legislators—had mobilized behind a bill that promised to give New York one of the strongest charter laws in the nation. Governor George Pataki's charter bill, had it passed undiluted, would have powerfully challenged the state's public education monopoly and would have exerted strong pressure on New York's dysfunctional public schools to do better. Yet, though it was difficult to find anyone in Albany who admitted to being opposed to charter schools, the education system's interests, led by the teachers' unions, prevented it from coming to a vote in the state's proverbially undemocratic and venal Legislature.

If you want to know what New York's kids have been missing, just visit the resoundingly successful Boston Renaissance School, one of the country's largest charter schools. Boston Renaissance is the brainchild of the nonprofit Horace Mann Foundation, whose trustees, certain that they could do better than the city's failed public school system, took advantage of Massachusetts' 1993 charter school law and obtained a charter from the state education department to start their own elementary school.

In short order, the trustees settled on a location and came up with an innovative educational program. With the Massachusetts Land Bank's help, the foundation acquired space in a nondescript 12-story former office building in downtown Boston. Then they hired the Edison Project-entrepreneur Chris Whittle's for-profit education management firm—to design everything from testing tools to staff development. Most important, Edison provided a curriculum based on the sturdiest educational research. It included a phonics-based reading program, and it set clear-cut goals for every grade.

Choosing its students by lottery, as state law demands, Boston Renaissance opened in September 1995 with 637 students in grades K through 5 (including, as the law requires, kids with disabilities and special-education students). Two years later, the school enrolled 1,050 students—80 percent of them minorities—in grades K through 8. A waiting list of 1,000 kids exists for the few seats that become available each year. Thus far, the new school has performed better than even its early supporters might have hoped: a recent Massachusetts Department of Education study found that, while Boston Renaissance's students scored below the national average on standardized tests when they entered the school, after one year they performed at or above grade levels.

One reason Boston Renaissance works so well is that it has more flexibility than does a traditional public school to tackle problems. For example, though the school's downtown location brought wonderful benefits—a safe neighborhood and easy access to Boston's rich history and culture—the cramped office building had no space for a cafeteria. With no school board bureaucrats tripping it up, Boston Renaissance was able to respond in a way unthinkable for a typical public school: a private vendor would bring prepared lunches, heat them in microwave ovens, and then distribute them to the classrooms.

The absence of a union contract adds to the school's flexibility. Boston Renaissance administrators can, for example, ask teachers to stay with their kids during lunch. These in-class lunches with the teacher present work marvelously: in one fifth-grade classroom, children sat quietly, eating at their tables, while their teacher, Kathy O' Flaherty, calmly chatted with a few kids—a refreshingly domestic and civil scene for anyone used to the escalating chaos of a typical public school cafeteria.

Free from union work rules, teachers spend more time at school. Boston Renaissance offers 200 instructional days a year, 20 more than other Boston public schools. The school day is also longer: sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students arrive at 7:30 AM, and don't leave until 3:30 PM, while teachers must be in the school from 7 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. At least once a week, the school requires teachers to stay late for a staff meeting. And teachers must show up at least one week before the school year opens—five days earlier than in most public schools—for administrative and planning sessions.

Boston Renaissance's flexibility extends to the way it organizes teaching and how it pays its teachers. The school arranges teachers in teams and has master teachers supervise the work of less experienced colleagues. Ordinary teachers take home about the same pay they would in most public schools, though master teachers can earn more. Master teachers, in effect, receive merit pay—an idea teachers' unions strongly oppose—for what they've accomplished and how much they've learned. And, a huge difference from union-dominated public school systems, Boston Renaissance can fire teachers who don't measure up to its standards.

Since charter school teachers lack tenure and serve under renewable performance contracts, it must be hard to find good help, right? Wrong: resumés swamp Boston Renaissance from frustrated teachers who work for the region's other public schools. Kathy O' Flaherty (who once taught in the Newton Public Schools) explains why: "We don't have to wait to make changes," she says. "We don't have to wait for the district to decide that what we are doing is within the rules. Also, we don't need the approval of the union. So we can really put the interests of the kids first.

Esterjuana Gliwinsky, Boston Renaissance's acting principal, agrees: the absence of red tape lets administrators and teachers do their jobs. "Unlike regular public schools," she explains, "we don't have to defend the indefensible. If a teacher doesn't work out, we can get rid of that teacher. If I can buy books at the book mart across the street for $1, I don't have to wait to order the same book through the district for $6." Gliwinsky came to the school as a fourth-grade teacher from Rochester, where she was once named New York's elementary school teacher of the year. A former union activist, she now believes that public education won't improve without charters shaking things up.

Indeed, one reason charter schools are such a great idea is that their competitive example might jolt the public school system to loosen its strangle-hold on its own schools—as happened in Massachusetts after the state passed the charter school law. Fearing it would lose students to schools like Boston Renaissance, the Boston School Committee and the teachers' union decided to prove the regular school system could innovate, too. In an historic agreement, the two parties agreed to launch six Boston "pilot schools" with many of the same freedoms the state charter schools now enjoy, to forestall greater change.

Boston Renaissance is a completely new school, a "start-up," but other charters, like Los Angeles's Fenton Avenue School, are "conversions" of existing public schools. When Joe Lucente, Fenton Avenue's current principal, first came to the school in the early nineties, it was still part of the gigantic Los Angeles Unified School District. "I had heard stories about how bad it was, how it went through four principals in five years," Lucente recalls. "Then I met the district superintendent, and he described to me for over an hour in graphic terms how bad it really was." What Lucente heard was truly bleak: poor pupil attendance and poorer academic performance, low staff morale, a plague of gang activity, and a pervasive atmosphere of despair and violence. A blunt University of Southern California evaluator called Fenton Avenue "a hellhole."

For a couple of years, Lucente worked hard to improve the school, with little success; he began to think it was time to quit. Then, in 1993, the California Legislature passed a charter law, and Lucente decided to try again to turn Fenton Avenue around—this time by converting it into a charter school. In 1994, he and his staff won a fight to secede from the city district and to operate independently through a state charter. The first task: to decrease class size. Hiring private vendors for food services and cutting administrative fat, the school saved enough money to add teachers and reduce class size from 30 to 20 for grades K to 3, and from 30 to 25 for grades 4 to 6. The savings also allowed Fenton Avenue to add after-school and Saturday programs, and even to rescind a 10 percent teacher pay cut that the district had previously ordered.

Within two years, Fenton Avenue had boosted student achievement significantly. On the California Test of Basic Skills—which covers math, reading, and writing—student scores jumped 16 percent the first year. After year two, scores for English-speaking students had increased an additional 5.5 percent, while for Spanish-speaking kids they went up a dramatic 28.7 percent. Impressed by such improved student performance, the state education department named Fenton Avenue a "California Distinguished Elementary School" in 1997, and Superintendent of Instruction Diane Easton called it "one of the nation's finest schools."

Perhaps Fenton Avenue's most impressive achievement, though, is the progress it has made in its novel technology program. Critics derided the lofty idea behind the plan as sheer fantasy: to create a technological infrastructure for the school "as good as the most technologically advanced university in the country." Fenton Avenue spent $1.3 million of its 1996-97 budget to put the plan into effect. The result: every classroom now hums with multimedia computers, VCRs and CD players, satellite and cable TV. The school even has a broadcast studio, allowing students and staff to tape their own shows on FCB—Fenton Channel Broadcasting. Two sixth-grade classrooms have realized Fenton's technological dream: a computer on every desk in this inner-city school.

While technology by itself is almost never the solution to educational failure, Fenton Avenue's wired classroom is not technology just for the sake of it. Instead, the electronic capacity enables staff and students to access an extraordinary range of curriculum materials they wouldn't ordinarily have: the class now takes a dozen electronic field trips around the world each year, seeing and hearing, to take one example, scientists who walk them through the dazzling flora and wildlife of subtropical Africa. It's a salutary example of technology supplementing, not replacing, good pedagogy.

Not all charters are as effective as Boston Renaissance or Fenton Avenue. Some, faced with overwhelming start-up costs, have fallen apart, while others have been frauds. Many states don't yet have the mechanisms in place to help legitimate charter schools surmount their early difficulties or to help parents smoke out humbug.

You can read about the charter schools that have stumbled in Thomas Toch's recent cover article in U.S. News and World Report. In Michigan, Toch recounts, ruthless profiteers founded charter schools on sites they owned—and then squeezed exorbitant rents from them. Also in Michigan, one Afrocentric charter school, instead of observing Lincoln's or Washington's Birthday, celebrated "Malcolm X Memorial Day" and various other African holidays, stoking a fervid multiculturalism that would prove deeply divisive if it spread through inner-city schools. In Arizona, Toch found, a few charter schools practiced flagrant nepotism in admissions.

But unlike traditional public schools, if you don't like what you find, you can get out. Nor do charter schools escape scrutiny the way typical public schools do: if a charter flunks, it's far more likely to get shut down or to have its weaknesses exposed than is a traditional public school. At least a dozen charters have been closed so far, and with five-year reviews coming due for many, the number of closings will only grow.

Still, despite the occasional bad charter school, it's clear that many Americans are desperate for alternatives to failing public schools, and nowhere more so than in inner-city neighborhoods, where parents grasp at charter schools, tuition tax credits, vouchers—anything to get their kids out of a system that effectively condemns many of them to a bleak future. And what's ultimately telling is that charter schools are so popular with those who know them best: the kids, parents, and teachers directly involved. A Hudson Institute study one of us co-authored discovered that most charter students find their schoolwork interesting, respect their teachers, and will probably stay enrolled. Parents usually remain satisfied with charter schools, the study showed, while teachers often find professional fulfillment in working for one. Satisfaction is highest when what's at stake is immediately educational—class size, curriculum, teaching. It is lowest when attention turns to non-educational worries—food services, school facilities, sports—a vivid sign that charters are deploying their limited means on what really counts.

The politics of charter schools are tricky. It's hard to find anyone in public life these days who opposes the basic charter school concept—something you couldn't say about school vouchers. The charter school movement makes for strange bedfellows, from President Clinton to ex-education secretary and virtue pundit William Bennett. Even the powerful national teachers' unions say they're on board: "Charter laws give educators and parents the chance to create the schools of their dreams," enthuses National Education Association head Bob Chase. "Let me first take credit for charter schools," announced Thomas Hobart, president of New York State United Teachers, at a recent charter conference. "Over a decade ago at the National Press Club," Hobart claimed, "[American Federation of Teachers head] Al Shanker stood up and said we should have charter schools."

Beyond the rhetoric, however, big differences loom. Teachers' union leaders have a very specific idea of what a charter school should be—and it's nothing like Boston Renaissance or Fenton Avenue. In a 1996 report, Shanker's AFT held up Rhode Island's charter school law as the model for other states. But Rhode Island forces charters to follow existing collective bargaining agreements and says they can't hire uncertified teachers and administrators—throwing out a key ingredient that makes charter schools work. The state's legislation is so restrictive that, to date, Rhode Island has just one charter school. By borrowing the language of charters, teachers' unions can claim to celebrate "school choice" while in fact they continue to fight it. Charters become a firewall to prevent further reform.

Many charter school supporters, on the other hand, view charters as a first step toward greater choice. Arizona's elected state superintendent of education, Lisa Graham Keegan, for example, has been one of the country's most enthusiastic advocates of charters. The state now has 250 charter schools, in large part thanks to her. But Keegan turned to charters only when, as a state legislator, she failed to get a voucher law passed; for her, charters are a second-best option that will, by whetting the public's appetite for choice, breach the public education fortress and win the day for a fully competitive voucher system. 

In New York, the teachers' union has always set the terms for education reform, so it's no surprise that the state lags behind most of the country when it comes to challenging the public school status quo. As the largest contributor to New York political campaigns, the union has profoundly influenced the drafting of education bills. One egregious case from the mid-1980s: the misnamed Excellence in Teaching Bill. The bill added $1,000 to the annual salary of every teacher in New York City—whether excellent, mediocre, or completely inept in the classroom.

In the Legislature, neither party has had any interest in education reform. Democrats are creatures of the teachers' union, but even Republican legislators, like their Democratic colleagues, mainline teachers' union campaign money, so they're loath to criticize the monopoly that supplies it. And many Republicans don't really care: they tend to represent upstate constituencies that are happy with their local schools and that dismiss education reform as an inner-city concern. As one leading Republican assemblyman once told City Journal, "Education isn't one of our issues."

But during Governor Pataki's first term, the national debate on education reform began to shift—against the public school monopoly. A host of other Republican governors, including Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Pete Wilson of California, scored significant political victories in prodding reluctant state legislatures to consider reform. Voters increasingly associated Democrats with stubborn teachers' unions and wretched inner-city schools. Suddenly, education had become a conservative issue. Sometime during the past 18 months—perhaps when he began to dream about national office—Governor Pataki joined the reformist trend with his charter school bill.

As charter bills go, Pataki's was as good as they get. Under it, several agencies could have chartered new schools: the state education department, of course, but also local boards of education, a new state chartering agency, and even the mayors of the state's largest cities. The bill permitted charter start-ups and made room for converting existing public schools, and, unlike charter laws in many states, it wouldn't have put an upper limit on the number of charters. New York's charter schools could have hired uncertified teachers for their talent; principals could at last have managed their schools free from restrictive union work rules. Picture it: exciting schools sprouting in Bedford Stuyvesant, Harlem, the South Bronx—everywhere hopelessness is endemic and the old system is in greatest disrepair.

Pataki proposed such a strong bill only because an unusual coalition held his feet to the fire on reform. On the right, there was Change—NY, a conservative lobbying group founded by several prominent Wall Streeters that has raised millions of dollars for Pataki; and there was John Faso, the dynamic Republican minority leader in the State Assembly, who grasps the political potential of charters to bring Republicans and minorities together. At the coalition's center was the Center for Educational Innovation (affiliated with the Manhattan Institute), which laid the public groundwork for charters through a series of cogent, well-attended forums. And on the left was an informal group of black and Hispanic activists that included ex-representative Floyd Flake; Gail Foster, president of the Toussaint Institute, a community-based organization that helps inner-city parents find alternatives to the public schools; and Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green. The fact that support for charter schools spans New York's political spectrum is a sign of how intolerable the public school monopoly has grown. And the coalition is not going to go away. As Thomas Carroll, Executive Director of Change—NY, stresses: "The 'strange bedfellows' coalition for charter schools in New York grows stronger with each passing day; there's no doubt charter legislation will be adopted—either at the end-of-year legislative session, or at the latest, next year."

That minority leaders like Flake, Foster, and Green all embrace charter schools reflects the changing political alignments in the minority community over education reform. During the past two years, polls have found strong support among blacks—60 to 70 percent—for school choice. One index of support for school choice is that in New York last year, 20,000 black and Hispanic parents applied for a chance to receive one of 1,300 private school scholarships, worth $1,400 each, from the School Choice Scholarships Foundation.

Charter schools raise the question of what is public education? For too long, the only approved answer came from teachers' unions and their supporters: it's an education, they said, that unionized government bureaucracies provide with taxpayer money. But what's central to the idea of public education is public funding, public standards, and schools open to all—not government employees and a one-size-fits-all institution. In theory, a system composed entirely of charter schools, in which public money follows each pupil to the school of his choice, would be no less a public school system than the monopoly system that so badly educates urban children today.

Recent developments underscore how strongly the public school monopoly is besieged. On June 9, investment banker Theodore Forstmann, Wal-Mart director John Walton, and several other wealthy philanthropists announced a $200 million national fund for 50,000 private school scholarships—that is, vouchers—for low-income students. The next day, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Milwaukee's school choice program was constitutional and that it could provide 15,000 publicly funded vouchers for pupils to use in religious or secular private schools—a huge victory for school choice supporters. And on June 15 came the news that Arthur Levine, president of Columbia's Teachers College—the Mother Church of the public school status quo-backed vouchers, as long as they weren't used for religious schools. All this means that, within a year or two, at least an additional 65,000 children, and probably many more, will be able to opt out of poor public schools across the country, and the demand for more choice will grow.

The tide is turning for how we think about public education. For the moment, the public school monopoly has successfully persuaded the New York Legislature to resist the current of modernity, but it's only a matter of time before even New York gets swept along. A charter school law soon seems all but inevitable—and that's likely not to be the most radical reform in store. 

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.


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