CHARTER SCHOOLS: CREATING HOPE AND OPPORTUNITY FOR AMERICAN EDUCATION
By Joe Nathan
Jossey-Bass, 249 pp., $25
Joe Nathan has written a thoughtful, plain-English explanation of many of the key issues that surround charter schools, perhaps the most vibrant force for genuine reform in public education today.
These independent public schools of choice - now numbering around 500 in 25 states and the District of Columbia - are open to all, paid for with tax dollars, and accountable to the public.
They are based on a simple but powerful concept: Public schools need not be run in uniform fashion by government bureaucracies. Both Republicans and Democrats hail these schools as a promising reform strategy, with President Clinton making them a prominent part of his education focus in the State of the Union message.
As Nathan notes in "Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education," being directly accountable for one's results, and free to achieve them as one sees fit, is a combination rarely seen in conventional public schools.
The schools, to the surprise of many, are not havens for the "best and brightest" students but serve large numbers of needy, troubled, and minority children - square peg kids who don't fit into the round holes of conventional public schools.
Nathan's perspective in "Charter Schools" is particularly persuasive and insightful because he was "present at the creation" of this country's first charter-school law in Minnesota in 1991.
He is a former public school teacher and administrator and now serves as director of the University of Minnesota Center for School Change at the Hubert Humphrey Institute.
In addition to introducing the reader to the key ideas that underlie the charter-school movement, Nathan offers many practical suggestions on how to start a charter school.
He also provides a state-by-state summary of charter laws and a list of contacts along with model charter-school legislation.
Within the charter context, a public school is one that serves the public, meets fundamental health, safety, and nondiscrimination requirements, is financed by and accountable to the public for results.
This approach provides school boards with a new perspective on their job: ensuring that the public has the broadest range of choices available to it and that every child has a school to attend.
But not every charter school is terrific because it bears the charter label.
As Nathan admits, they are not immune to human frailties, to slipshod planning, to unanticipated crises, and reversals of fortune. Neither are they a panacea for all that ails public education.
For the most part though, they are heaven-sent options for their students, welcome professional opportunities for their teachers, bona fide educational assets for their communities, and, taken as a whole, a genuinely promising reform development for the states and the nation.
In short, parents, teachers, nonprofit - even for-profit groups where permitted - stymied and frustrated by the failure of the traditional public school system are taking matters into their own hands. They are all creating these schools to meet the needs of kids not now well-served by the present public school system.
Moreover, charter schools are creating a climate where parents look to student performance and higher test scores as indicative of better education. These schools swap rules and regulations for results, defined in terms of actual achievement. The result is a profound alternative to the conventional model of a school run from a central district office.
Particularly attractive features of charter schools include their intimate scale, clearly focused mission, freedom from burdensome regulations, and the fact that students, teachers, and parents have chosen to be there.
Surprisingly, much of what they do is accomplished for less money than conventional schools. For all these reasons, charter schools are helping the nation reinvent education. Nathan's book is a great "state of the art" resource for those wanting to know more about charter schools as well as those wanting to start one of their own.
* Bruno V. Manno is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis, and author, with Chester E. Finn Jr. and Louann A. Bierlein, of 'Charter Schools in Action: What Have We Learned?'