Among the litany of proposals during his State of Union speech, President Clinton praised charter schools for providing "real public school choice," and called for increasing their number from the current 1,700 to 3,000 by next year.
Putting aside the question of whether the federal government should fund local schools, Mr. Clinton showed some leadership in trying to expand this grand experiment.
Charter schools are, in essence, private schools using public money and meeting public standards. They are usually free to operate outside the bureaucratic structure of the local district and teachers' union. Many provide an education that breaks the mold because public schools can't always be flexible enough to meet the needs of all students.
But most charter schools move against strong currents. They divert money away from public schools. School administrators who feel threatened by this can instead analyze why charter schools draw students and then seek public support to adjust their own offerings.
Charters inject a stirring element of competition to public education. But they are still an experiment to see if public schools really will respond. If they don't, then that argues against taking the bolder step of giving vouchers to parents to send their children to private and parochial institutions.
For now, though, the nation needs the ferment of more charter schools with more studies on their record and their impact on public schools.
Federal officials have little ability to directly shape state and local school decisions. But they can help shape the national dialogue on education. Since the president called for more charter schools, he deserves a hearing.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society