PSEA Perspective on Charter Schools

The Association supports charter schools that have the same standards of accountability and access as other public schools. Some advocates say “strong” charter laws are those that allow anyone, anywhere to set up a school with any kind of program and make the public pay for it. We believe any publicly funded school must be accountable to the general public — as well as parents — for budgets, health and safety standards, academic standards, and access for students. Charter schools must be a way to guide school improvement, not do away with standards.

NEA’s Charter Schools Initiative looks at charter schools as a learning tool. Our charter schools are being evaluated by an independent research team at the University of California at Los Angeles. Our charter project is the only systematic effort to take what we’ve learned and help all schools improve.

Charter schools shouldn’t be “group” vouchers, or a mechanism for circumventing the law. A number of private schools in Arizona, Michigan, and elsewhere simply changed their name and few cosmetics to become charter schools. Some Catholic schools are looking at charters as a way of using public funds to keep from closing. “The [Chicago] archdiocese has a cutting-edge written proposal from Chicago Board of Education officials outlining a legal way for it to operate several schools under a five-year public school charter…Schools could offer secular education by day and pay a separate staff with other dollars to offer religious classes before or after school.” (Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1999)

Many charter schools have had serious legal problems, poor academic track records, and problems staying open. The criteria for charter school success should be whether they improve educational opportunities for students, not simply the numbers of participants or popularity polls. Too often, charter school advocates simply say they are successful because the number of schools and number of participants is growing. Much has been made of the promise of charter schools, but there is evidence on both sides of their performance.

Background on Charter Schools

At the end of the 1980s, President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, called for a new definition of public schools: any school that serves the public and is held accountable by a public authority. By that definition, McDonald’s is a public school, because it teachers people how to cook hamburgers and fries, is open to the public, and is held accountable for health and zoning codes and wage and hour regulations.

Charter schools have consistently been described as “public schools that are exempted from most education rules and regulations so as to permit more flexible and innovative methods of achieving educational excellence. In exchange for this greater independence, charter schools are held accountable for improving student performance,” (U.S. Department of Education, FY2001 Budget Summary, February 2000). But the reality of charter schools is anything but consistent. Laws vary widely from state to state, and practices vary even more widely from school to school.

Charter Schools and Accountability

According to the U.S. Department of Education, at least 59 charter schools closed between 1992 and 1999 — about 4 percent of all charter schools that have ever opened. Some observers see this as a positive. Chester Finn Jr., et al., in a 1996 report for the Hudson Institute, wrote “Some charter schools will fail and close or be closed. This is a plus for educational accountability and a model for public education generally…Failure should be tolerated, even welcomed.”

Other observations from the same paper:
State charter school laws are stronger on theory than practice when it comes to accountability and evaluation. No state yet has in place a fully satisfactory plan. It may be too early to say anything definite about (charter schools’) educational effectiveness. Many restrictions [faced by charter schools] come from inadvertent failure to eliminate or waive statutory and regulatory provisions. Some of the pro-charter school arguments have a dreamlike logic that is hard to follow. The fact that 59 charter schools have closed down, disrupting the education of an estimated 15,000 students is a good thing, and there should be more of it. The reason why charter schools are so accountable, is that they are not accountable to public authorities or bound by the law. And the reason why they are having problems is there are too many laws that bind them now.

The 1996 Chester Finn report called for a number of recommendations that it claims would make charter school laws even “stronger.” Allow any individual, group, or organization to submit a charter school proposal. Make charter schools legal entities in their own right. Set no limits on how many charter schools there can be. Allow private schools to “convert” (sic) to charter status.

Charter Schools and For-Profit Education

A web search on charter schools might lead you to with a general commentary on charter schools. One of the options for more information is a link to the Center for Education Reform, the pro-voucher, pro-charter group headed by former Heritage Foundation staffer Jeanne Allen. If you would like a printed copy of the Center’s report on charter schools, it’s available ($20 to download) at For a little more, $500 to download, will provide The Education Quarterly Investment Report, detailing the $6 billion in venture capital invested in education companies, included those operating as charter schools. Wall Street is buzzing with the prospects of money to be made in “public” education. In one 1997 report, The Emerging Investment Opportunity in Education, “The education industry represents the final frontier in a number of sectors once under public control…that have either voluntarily opened or been forced to open themselves up to entrepreneurial innovation and public/private restructuring.” About 30 percent of all charter schools are operated by for-profit businesses, including Edison. David Plank of the University of Michigan reported in February 2000 that 70 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit businesses.


We invite you to educate yourself, be part of the public debate about education reform, and share your point of view with your Senators and Congressional representatives, state legislators and school boards. To receive alerts about this and other education issues, please sign up to receive the Friends of Publication Education newsletter.