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A Study of Charter Schools: First-Year Report -- Message 2

Message 2 -- "A Study of Charter Schools:
              First-Year Report" (May 1997)
Charter Schools Are Diverse
There is no "typical" charter school; they are extraordinarily 
diverse.  While some use advanced technology enabling students to 
study off-site, others emphasize small, nurturing environments with 
close student-teacher contact.  Some schools mirror different 
aspects of school reforms of the 1990s, but others rely on more 
conventional pedagogy & programs.  Structured learning environments 
are featured in some charter schools, but others have purposely 
designed less structured learning environments as a matter of 
policy.  A sizable proportion of charter schools are designed to 
serve special populations, though most reflect the demographic 
characteristics of students in their geographic area.  The variety 
in charter schools is evident, both in their diverse education 
programs & missions, & in their array of approaches to management, 
governance, finance, parent involvement, & personnel policies.
The report puts the variation in perspective by comparing charter 
schools to other public schools in the ten states where charter 
schools were operating in 1996:
  *  Most charter schools are small. About 60 percent enroll fewer
     than 200 students, whereas only 16 percent of other public 
     schools have such small student bodies.  No matter what grade 
     levels are served, a higher proportion of charter schools are 
     smaller than other public schools.  The difference is most 
     striking at the secondary level.  Almost four-fifths of 
     charter schools enroll fewer than 200 students, in contrast to 
     one-quarter of other public secondary schools.  Charter 
     schools are more likely than other public schools to serve a 
     wide grade-level span (K-8 or K-12), or to be ungraded.
  *  Most charter schools are newly created.  About 60 percent of
     charter schools were created because of the charter 
     opportunity; the remainder are pre-existing schools that 
     converted to charter status.  About one-tenth of all charter 
     schools were previously private schools.  Newly created 
     charter schools tend to be smaller than converted ones -- 
     three-fourths of the newly created schools have fewer than 200 
     students, whereas only half of the conversion schools have 
     fewer than 200.
  *  Charter schools have, on average, a racial composition roughly
     similar to statewide averages or they have a higher proportion 
     of students of color.  Massachusetts, Michigan, & Minnesota 
     charter schools stand out in that they enroll a higher 
     percentage of students of color than the average of all public 
     schools in their respective states.  Aside from Georgia (which 
     has only three charter schools), the average racial 
     composition of charter schools in the other states is similar 
     to their statewide averages.
  *  Charter schools serve, on average, a slightly lower proportion
     of students with disabilities, except in Minnesota & 
     Wisconsin.  In eight states, the typical charter school serves 
     a somewhat lower percentage of students with disabilities than 
     the average public school in its state.  In Minnesota & 
     Wisconsin this is reversed; the typical charter school serves 
     a higher percentage of students with disabilities.  A number 
     of charter schools are designed specifically to serve special 
     needs students.  Fifteen of the 225 charter schools responding 
     to the survey had student bodies that were more than 25 
     percent special education students; two of them enroll only 
     students with disabilities.
  *  Charter schools serve, on average, a lower proportion of
     limited-English-proficient (LEP) students, except in Minnesota 
     & Massachusetts.  The averages mask some statewide 
     differences.  Minnesota & Massachusetts charter schools enroll 
     a larger percentage of LEP students than the average of other 
     public schools in their states.  And 21 charter schools serve 
     student populations composed of more than 25 percent LEP 
     students.  In the remaining states, the average percentage of 
     LEP students in charter schools is lower than the statewide 
     average.  Georgia's three charters enroll a small percentage 
     of LEP students, but the statewide average is also very low.
  *  Charter schools enroll approximately the same proportion of
     low-income students, on average, as other public schools. 
     About one-third of charter school students were eligible for 
     free & reduced price lunch, which is about the same proportion 
     as in all public schools.  Approximately one-half of the 
     surveyed charter schools reported that their school 
     participates in the National School Lunch Program.
  *  Most charter schools are eligible for Title I funding.  This
     finding holds for all states except for Colorado, Hawaii 
     (which has two charter schools) & Wisconsin (which has five). 
     For most states, about half or more of the schools reporting 
     eligibility receive funding.  However, in Michigan, only 25 
     percent of this group receives funding; in Colorado & 
     Wisconsin, none receive funding.  Further study is needed to 
     determine why schools that are eligible to receive Title I 
     funds do not receive them.  Commentators have suggested that 
     this problem may be due to administrative issues or to 
     difficulties that charter schools may experience in 
     understanding the complexity of Title I eligibility 
The data thus show that though most charter schools are small -- 
and their numbers are relatively few -- they serve the great racial 
& economic diversity of students that make up public education. 
And like other public schools engaged in major school reform, their 
approaches to education often vary dramatically from one another.
The Most Common Reasons for Founding Charter Schools 
Are to Pursue an Educational Vision or Gain Autonomy 
Charter schools are started in order to realize an educational 
vision; have more autonomy over organizational, personnel, or 
governance matters; serve a special population; receive public 
funds; engender parent involvement & ownership; or attract students 
& parents.  Different types of charter schools had distinctive 
motivations.  In particular:
  *  Almost all newly created charter schools seek to realize an
     educational vision & /or serve a special student population. 
     Two out of three newly created charter schools founded the 
     charter to "realize an educational vision." Another 20 percent 
     were developed to serve a special population of students, 
     including "at-risk," language minority, disabled, or ethnic & 
     racial minority students.
  *  The vast majority of schools chartered in order to gain
     autonomy are pre-existing public schools.  Four out of five 
     charter schools that sought autonomy from districts, state 
     regulations or collective bargaining agreements were public 
     school conversions.
  *  Most private schools convert to charter status in order to
     offer their educational vision to additional or more diverse 
     students using public funds.  In addition to realizing an 
     educational vision, pre-existing private schools cited 
     attracting more students & seeking public funding as most 
     important reasons for converting to charter status.
There is a common thread across these distinctive motivations: 
Charter developers feel that charters afford educators, parents & 
community members an opportunity to pursue goals they felt they 
could accomplish more effectively if they had fewer restrictions & 
stable financial support.
Nearly All Charter Schools Face Implementation Obstacles 
The vast majority of charter schools face difficulties during 
development & implementation, but newly created charter schools 
experience a distinctive pattern of difficulties compared to 
converted schools.
  *  Resource limitations cause the most pervasive problems,
     especially lack of start-up funds.  Lack of start-up funds was 
     mentioned more frequently than any other single problem, by 59 
     percent of charter schools.  Among newly created schools, 68 
     percent said lack of start-up funds was a problem.  More than 
     one-third of all Charter schools cited a problem with lack of 
     planning time.  Similar percentages cited inadequate operating 
     funds & inadequate facilities.  In all, seven out of ten 
     charter schools named at least one area where resource 
     limitations produced some difficulty.
  *  Some charter schools experience problems with other entities. 
     Between 15 percent & 25 percent of charter schools cited each 
     of the following difficulties, (listed with the difficulties 
     receiving the highest percentage first): state or local board 
     opposition, state education agency resistance or regulation, 
     internal conflicts or local education agency resistance or 
     regulation, or union or bargaining unit resistance.  In all, 
     three out of five pre-existing schools experienced at least 
     one of these problems.  No one of these difficulties was 
     common across many charter schools, but rather each problem 
     tended to arise largely based on unique local situations.
  *  Regulatory issues were cited less frequently.  Only one out of
     four charter schools, whether newly created or pre-existing, 
     encountered one or more problems involving regulatory 
     barriers.  For each type of regulatory barrier, only ten 
     percent or fewer of responding schools cited the problem. 
     Regulatory issues include restrictions on hiring teaching 
     staff, health & safety regulations, other state regulations 
     (including financial, liability, & retirement issues), & state 
     accountability requirements.
It is typical for schools undergoing change to experience 
implementation problems, but new charter schools have additional & 
singular challenges most akin to those encountered by fledgling 
small businesses, including creating time for planning, cash flow 
constraints, & attracting students & staff.  Conversion schools 
face different challenges; many have realized autonomy from state 
regulations, but some continue to struggle to resolve local 
political & administrative situations (various state restrictions 
still exist in many cases & may be increasing in some states).
Next Steps
It is far too early to assess the significance of charter schools 
for American education, but this report offers the first 
comprehensive description of the charter movement; thus, it 
provides a foundation for tracking future charter developments. 
Building on this database & yearly updates, researchers will study 
in subsequent years the impact of charter schools on student 
performance & on state & local public school systems.  In 1997, the 
research team begins its longitudinal assessment of student 
achievement.  It will conduct intensive site visits in order to 
identify state & local factors affecting charter implementation & 
student achievement, & initiate the difficult task of collecting 
information on the possible consequences of charter schools for 
American education.