For nearly a decade, charter schools have been the vanguard of public-school reform. These schools, freed of much of the bureaucratic red tape and academic conformity that all too often bind regular public schools, were conceived as engines of innovation and competition.
In many cases, that promise has been realized. But with the number of charters reaching more than 2,000 in 34 states, some mismanagement and failure were likely to surface in this new and only lightly regulated arena.
A number of states are rethinking their charter laws with an eye to improving oversight of these new-style schools. Still, across the United States, only 86 charter schools have been closed since the first one was opened in 1992 in Minnesota.
That low rate of closures, however, may be as much a function of states' reluctance to shut down the new schools as a statement about their overall performance. The biggest failing of weak charter schools has been financial mismanagement. Some spectacular failures in Texas, where towns were left holding the bag after schools collapsed, sparked healthy debate there. The Texas House earlier this year passed a law to freeze the granting of new charters and strengthen state regulation of the schools.
In Minnesota, one school's management was found to have used its public funds to lease cars and buy a condominium. The state is considering tighter financial rules and a new board to monitor charters.
As long as they don't hamstring charters with red tape, such changes can be positive. The future of charter schools depends on public trust that they are legitimate, useful alternatives to the regular public schools. But while some charters have sown the seeds of their own failure, there also are well-orchestrated efforts to hasten the failure of the whole idea of charter schools.
Teachers' unions, for example, often see charters as a threat to their control over wages and work rules. Charter schools run by private companies have been particular targets for protest and opposition. Many opponents react negatively to the very idea of publicly funded alternatives to the traditional public school - especially since such alternatives are seen as a step toward wider school choice.
But as long as charter schools contribute to the goal of effective public education for all children, they deserve support.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor