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Where did the idea of charter schools come from? What would the future hold if this phenomenon spreads? These are some of the questions that this book answers. It addresses pupil performance, enrollment patterns, school start-up problems, charges of inequity, and smoldering political battles.

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It features close-up looks at five real--and very different--charter schools and two school districts that have been deeply affected by the charter movement, including their setbacks and triumphs. After outlining a new model of education accountability and describing how charter schools often lead to community renewal, the authors take the reader on an imaginary tour of a charter-based school system. Charter schools are the most vibrant force in education today.

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This book suggests that their legacy will consist not only of helping millions of families obtain a better education for their children but also in renewing American public education itself. Renewing Public Education Chester E.

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Finn , Bruno V. He is the author of "We Must Take Charge: Christopher Gergen is a founding partner of New Mountain Ventures and a lifelong entrepreneur. Christopher lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D. Gregg Vanourek is a founding partner of New Mountain Ventures. To justify this polarization, they view public education through a misfocused lens. A frequent conservative ploy, repeated in this book, is to assert that because public schools are so awful, any alternative is superior.

Actual evidence about school shortcomings is unnecessary because, allegedly, parents have already issued their verdict by "voting with their feet--private school enrollments are rising. Actually, the share of privately educated students has been declining. Even with home-schoolers added to the private total, the private share is still stagnant.

Not only have Catholic schools lost working-class parishioners, but affluent families are also choosing private schools less frequently, enrolling their children in public schools instead. Polls find Americans quite satisfied with the public schools their children attend Finn and colleagues term this "complacency" and register dissatisfaction only with schools overall, in which case information comes from the media, not from experience.

Another nostrum repeated in Charter Schools in Action is that public schools today function like "antiquated" factories from the "horse and buggy" era. Charter schools, on the other hand, are flexible, reflecting insights of modern corporate management. However much schools need improvement, the ossification charge is absurd. Curricula and pedagogies change constantly.


Pupil-teacher ratios have declined by about 40 percent since the middle of the twentieth century. As late as , median male adults had completed nine years of school; today, they have some college education. Competition from charters is now one stimulus for change, but not the primary one.

Indeed, public schools reform so rapidly that methods are barely assimilated before new fads emerge. Standardized tests change so frequently that scores are not comparable from one year to the next. Preschool is being added as an entitlement. Schools teach conceptual math, then replace it with "basics. Bilingual education is implemented in some places, prohibited elsewhere. But as Finn and his colleagues see it, were it not for charter schools, education reform would be "nearing paralysis.

E xaggerating schools' shortcomings invites a lesser burden of proof that alternatives might work. A fed-up public may be willing to try anything. Charter Schools in Action takes this approach: Despite "barrels of good intentions, reform efforts have yielded meager dividends. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are higher than a generation ago, especially in math. More students take advanced placement courses and pass them. The gap between minority and white scores has narrowed. Academic content of diplomas has risen.

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Much remains to be done, but these are not "meager dividends. Setting up a voucher system, in which parents get government funds for private school tuition, has been many conservatives' aim, although chances of leveraging small programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida into universal schemes are not good. But privatization can also be accomplished by giving public funds directly to private schools.

Whether you think this is what charters do depends upon whether you consider them "public" or "private" schools. At one extreme, publicly funded but unregulated schools represent "private education," as most of us understand the term. As more standards are imposed, schools become more public. A publicly funded school that must implement minimum curricula, administer state tests, and admit students without discrimination is clearly "public.

This book's inconsistency is that it defends charters so unregulated that they are private in all but name, yet proposes new regulations more stringent than any presently conceived. The authors rarely find existing regulations of which they approve. States that forbid private schools from converting to charters for the sole purpose of tapping into public treasuries, states that "burden" charters with teacher certification requirements, or states that do not "automatically" waive other regulations are deemed by the authors to have "limp" statutes in need of "the legislative equivalent of Viagra.

Charter schools now encompass a wide range of sins and virtues. Any book attempting to promote or condemn them in toto will be inconsistent. When initially conceived by liberals, the idea was for charters to be free from most regulations in exchange for proven academic results. Charters would be open to all, with students admitted by lottery, without admission requirements or exams to create unrepresentative student bodies.

They could not charge tuition to supplement public funds. They could not teach religion.

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These requirements, however, have gone mostly unenforced. Many charters pioneer pedagogies that should be imitated by regular schools. But private schools have converted to charters, functioning as before but with public funds. Some charters solicit extra parental contributions. Lottery requirements are circumvented when schools don't advertise openings or headmasters "counsel" unwanted parents away.

Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education

Yes, wide variation among charters made this book difficult to write, but the authors duck the most obvious contradictions. They claim "charters tap into Americans' propensity for civic engagement But it's hard to see village life recreated by the Edison Schools, Inc. Enforcing uniform curricula, Edison needs be as hierarchical as any school system, sorely testing Tocquevillian eyebrows. Yet such corporate chains don't provoke the authors to reconsider whether charters are "diverse, selfgoverning educational institutions Some charters only mask chicanery, like virtual "schools" that pass public funds through to home-schoolers.

In one case, California prohibited a charter from giving its public money to home-schoolers for purchasing equipment like home computers not characteristically supplied to regular school students. After home-schoolers marched in Sacramento to halt enforcement of what Finn and colleagues term a "narrow interpretation," the state retreated.

But the authors lament that the charter wasted "two years of time and energy on fighting the bureaucracy. T he authors suggest that charters, accountable for results but "free to produce those results as they think best," are inspired by corporate decentralization. Corporate plant managers may have greater discretion about which suppliers to patronize and are accountable for meeting quotas, but they also follow thousands of detailed engineering specifications, personnel regulations, and other guidelines.