Charter schools. What are they? How many of them exist in the country? Why were they established? Who monitors their performance? Have they been successful and if not, why not? What is the makeup of their faculty? Alternatively, their student body? How many are there in New York State and in the nation as a whole?
These and a wide variety of other questions have been added to the concerns of parents, teachers and unions in recent years and to date a lot of the questions have not been satisfactorily answered.
Currently there are approximately 4,000 charter schools operating in the United States. In our state, the number of charter schools was limited by state law to 100 up until April of this year, when that cap was lifted and the new cap of 200 instituted. New York has been conservative in its approach to authorizing new charter schools and experience in the rest of the country indicates this conservative approach has been wise.
With the change in the cap, the State University Board of Trustees and the SUNY Charter Schools Institute approved eight new charters, mostly in the New York City area. Nationwide the number of operating charter schools continues to increase each school year.
A majority of the charters now in existence have advertised themselves as smaller, safer alternatives to the neighborhood public school. They also stress that they can provide their students with more individual attention and longer school days to enhance educational opportunities. The charters indeed have the flexibility to set aside the rigid rules of the public education system and establish their own rules.
Each state sets up its own rules for authorization of charters and the criteria they must meet to continue operation. The state of Ohio has a wide-open authorization system and provides a good deal of government seed money, leading to the establishment of a great many charter schools with somewhat mixed results.
To date, Ohio's report card has given more than half of its 328 schools a rating of D or F, hardly a success story. Like charters elsewhere in the country, Ohio's charters receive public money but operate under independent entities. Ohio has a far higher failure rate of its charters than most states.
Fifty-seven percent of Ohio's charters are under academic watch or in emergency status, compared with 33 percent of traditional public schools in the state's big cities. A major problem in the state, leading to its poor performance, is that its law allows 70 government and private agencies to authorize new charters and financial incentives. New York limits the authorization to only three authorizing entities, giving it much tighter control of its charter system.
Another factor cited in Ohio's dismal charter school record has been the relatively large number of its charters managed by commercial companies. The Ohio legislature, recognizing the problems with its charters, in December passed a law to force failing schools to improve or face closing next year.
Many education experts say another one of Ohio's problems with charters is that too many opened too fast and were not properly prepared to fulfill their functions. Some Ohio charters, they say, were formed to take advantage of the startup money available. The education experts in Ohio also believe that many people with good intentions but with few, if any, educational credentials opened charter schools.
New York State's conservative approach to the establishment and operation of charter schools has been a major factor in the success of its program. Now that state law will permit the authorization of an additional 100 charters, we should all carefully track the program. The charter school program in our state has been a good one and all the care put into making it successful should be continued.
Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News