Charter School Debates on Tap in '03
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
The debate over whether charter schools are viable alternatives to public schools or mistakes that take money away from traditional schools is percolating in states ranging from Maryland to Washington.
Charter schools use taxpayer dollars, but operate without many of the local rules and regulations affecting other public schools.
Budget woes, however, may derail the charter school movement. K-12 education takes a big bite out of a state's budget, about 35 percent. Traditional public schools, already strapped for cash, lose funds when students leave for charter schools.
Most governors are trying to figure out how to both close their budget deficits and protect education, said Todd Ziebarth, program director of governance issues for the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit based in Denver that represents state policymakers and education leaders. "How will the charter school debate play in that environment?" Ziebarth asked.
A charter school gets most of its funds from the state, about 70 percent, according to the Center for Education Reform, an education advocacy group that supports charter schools and vouchers. The local school district gives nearly 20 percent while the federal government (8 percent) and private donations (4 percent) fork over the rest, according to a 2002 center survey.
Currently 39 states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow parents and community members to apply to their local or state education board for "charters" to open independent schools. Typically community-based groups or groups of educators and parents operate the schools, but in some states private or nonprofit businesses run the schools. Like public schools, charter schools are free to students.
Several new governors and the Bush administration aim to boost the number of charter schools beyond the current 2,700. They say charter schools increase options for parents, especially those who can't afford private schools. President Bush wants Congress to spend $320 million on charter schools, up from $200 million in '02, to help jumpstart a movement that began in the early 1990s.
But the bid to increase charter schools won't be easy. Teachers' unions and local education boards while publicly supporting the concept of charters- say too many charter schools don't adhere to state standards and lack accountability. The National Education Association, the country's largest teacher's union, for example, pointed out that in the first half of 2002, the California State Board of Education cut funding to 46 charter schools after an audit found the schools failed to follow state spending guidelines.
Charter supporters, however, contend that the real reason these groups oppose charters is because they lose funding and clout when students leave traditional public schools for charters. "The opposition harps on one bad apple to get to legislatures ... to get them to weaken or add new restrictions," making it harder to create and run charter schools, Anna Varghese Marcucio, project director of the Center for Education Reform, said.
Here's what to watch for in 2003:
- In Maryland, new Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. (R) has made bringing charter schools to Maryland among his top three legislative priorities. The governor's spokesman, Greg Massoni, said the governor is optimistic a bill will pass despite opposition from strong teachers' unions and a reluctant Democratically-controlled legislature.
- Maine lawmakers have been studying the issue for the past two years. The new governor there, Democrat John Baldacci, however, is a wildcard. As a member of the U.S. Congress, he supported charter schools, but has been relatively mum on the issue at the state level, said Bill Jones, who is active with the Maine Association for Charter Schools. Baldacci spokesman Lee Umphrey said that charters are "not on the top of the list" of the governor's priorities.
- New Hampshire has a law allowing charter schools, but doesn't actually have any such schools. Charter proponents are cautiously optimistic that Republican businessman Craig Benson will change that now that he is the new governor.
- In Washington, it's not the governor, but a new Senate committee chairman who may give the extra push needed to get a charter school law enacted. Heading the Senate Education Committee this session is Sen. Stephen Johnson (R), a supporter of charters. He replaces Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D), who charter advocates credit for successfully killing charter legislation. Gov. Gary Locke (D) has supported charter school proposals and is reviewing legislation, the governor's spokeswoman Kirsten Kendrick said.
- Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) and Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) are both new governors who support charter schools. Both, however, could face tough sledding changing their state laws. Advocates of charters describe the state education board in Hawaii as hostile to charters while the environment in Alaska is tepid at best.
- Georgia is another state to watch. The state has a charter school law, but the charter-advocacy group Center for Education Reform ranks it the 16th weakest of all the country's charter laws in a recent report. The new governor, Sonny Perdue (R), has pegged education among his top three priorities.
- California, Delaware and New York also could see action on the charter school front. Marcucio of the Center for Education Reform said she feared "rollbacks" to those states' existing charter laws that she said would weaken or add layers of new regulatory roadblocks.
"One person's `roadblock' is another person's level of accountability," said Celia Lose, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO,which represents teachers and other school-related personnel.