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Charter schools - Pros and Cons

March 17, 2003

These schools deliver results


By Dan Lips

Name the politician who called for the creation of hundreds of charter schools, saying they "can help to save public education in this country by proving that excellence can be provided to all children from all backgrounds, no matter what experiences they bring to the school in the first place."

You probably guessed Gov. Bob Ehrlich. Try again - those words belong to President Bill Clinton. The 42nd president is just one of many Democrats to embrace charter schools as a way to bring innovation, local focus and increased parental involvement into public education.

What are charter schools? They are publicly funded schools that agree to meet certain performance standards set by the state, but are otherwise free from the bureaucratic rules and regulations that encumber traditional school systems. Charter schools have the freedom and autonomy to find the best teaching methods to meet educational goals. Meanwhile, families can choose to send their children to the charter schools or keep them in traditional schools. As long as state evaluators find that a charter school is meeting its performance goals and parents believe it is providing their children a quality education, the school stays open.

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Initial research suggests that charter schools are working. The Center for Education Reform recently examined 65 empirical studies of charter schools and found that the vast majority of the studies confirmed that charter schools are creating quality learning environments for students. The Center also found evidence - supported by a separate study by the U.S. Department of Education - that traditional schools improve their performance when a charter school opens in their district.

But even more telling than academic studies is the opinion of parents. Some 684,000 children are enrolled in charter schools, and many of those schools have lengthy waiting lists. If those parents believed their children were not receiving a good education, they would "vote with their feet" by returning their children to a traditional school.

Ten years ago, just a handful of charter schools existed. Today, more than 2,700 operate across the country. But there is only one charter school in Maryland, and the state is just one of 10 that have yet to pass a charter school law. As a result, countless Maryland schoolchildren are denied the opportunity to benefit from charter school education.

But that may be about to change. Gov. Ehrlich and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers have made passage of meaningful charter schools legislation a top priority. Unfortunately, powerful political forces in Annapolis that benefit from the educational status quo are rallying to block the Ehrlich bill or replace it with legislation that would deprive charter schools of the freedom to set many of their own rules and determine how best to use their financial resources.

Considering the strong reasons to support charter schools in the Old Line State, why aren't more lawmakers backing the bipartisan Ehrlich charter schools legislation? More importantly, in a state where the Democratic Party dominates the General Assembly, why aren't more Maryland Democratic lawmakers following President Clinton and other Democrats on the national level and taking a leadership role in pushing for a meaningful charter schools law?

Teachers, parents and taxpayers should all rally behind the Ehrlich charter school bill. Charter schools would grant educators the opportunity to find new instructional methods that deliver results. Parents would have the freedom to choose from among several public education alternatives for educating their children. And, because charter schools would be held accountable for their results, taxpayers would be assured that the money they invest in education is going to schools that succeed.

Two of America's core beliefs are that society benefits through increased opportunities to innovate and compete, and that parents should have the freedom to choose what is best for their children. That's all that Maryland charter school supporters want - to provide parents with the freedom to choose what type of school to send their children.

The rest of the nation is experiencing the benefits of introducing charter schools into a stagnant public education system. Can Maryland afford to stand on the sidelines of this promising reform movement any longer?

Dan Lips is a senior fellow for education policy at the Maryland Public Policy Institute (www.mdpolicy.org) and president of the Arizona Dream Foundation, a non-profit education reform organization that supports school choice.




Poorer students will have no 'choice'


By Allan Powell

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