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Help Charter Schools Thrive

January 26, 2004

Charter schools educate California students about as well as traditional public schools, and with less money, says a report from the state Legislative Analyst's Office. Legislators should heed some of the report's recommendations by making it easier for the schools to receive their fair share of funding and by empowering state universities to charter new schools. At the same time, they should insist that these reforms lead to better achievement.

Though the report clearly is intended as a charter-school booster, in ways its endorsements are less than ringing. A decade ago, California ventured into charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate free of many state regulations, to discover whether innovation and parental choice would bring new excellence to education. The overall achievement of California's nearly 500 charter schools, at the same mediocre level as the regular public schools, is hardly something to cheer. It's also disheartening to learn that charter-school teachers are less likely to hold a full credential; more important, at the higher grades, they are less likely to be authorized to teach their particular subjects.

But the test scores look better for charter schools based on traditional campuses instead of independent study, and better yet for the schools that start up on their own rather than converting from a regular public school. In other words, the potential is there.

Despite the initial excitement about freeing these schools from bureaucracy, the state increasingly has bogged them down in regulation. Some rules were needed to prevent financial abuse. But others have made it unduly hard for charters to get their share of certain types of funding. Start-ups have had to battle for the buildings they're supposed to be guaranteed. School districts have the main authority to approve and oversee charters. But many districts lack the resources or interest to bother with them. As a result, the state's charter movement has lost steam.

The legislative analyst advises letting other groups authorize and supervise charters. In several states, universities with a teaching mission have done an excellent job; teaching colleges and charter schools have a natural link. A bill along those lines failed in California last year because it also unwisely would have given chartering authority to mayors and nonprofit groups. Legislators should try again, limiting the scope to colleges. The state also should, as the report advises, bundle categorical funds together and ease the application process for charter schools. A new state law holds charters to certain achievement standards to stay open. That's fair -- but only if the state gives charter schools the same funding and facilities as other public schools.

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