Education: The Report Card On Charter Schools

In 1988, when maverick American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker came up with the idea of charter schools, he envisioned publicly funded but independent lab schools that would strike a bargain with the system: less red tape in exchange for more achievement, accountability and innovation.

But this week, on the 10th anniversary of the experiment's launch, the AFT will release a highly critical assessment of the movement that now claims 2,119 schools and more than a half million students in 37 states and the District of Columbia. While some distinctive new schools have been established, the report concludes that too often, charters haven't lived up to their end of the bargain. On average, charters (especially the for-profits) spend more on administration and less on instruction than local public schools. Student performance is usually no better, and often worse. Charters are more homogeneous in race and class than their comparative school district. The study found that few charters are doing anything truly innovative, and too many are permitted to opt out of public comparisons of their students' test results. "We wanted charters to be incubators of reform, and we supported many that were," says current AFT president Sandra Feldman. "But as we look across the country now, it's quite disappointing that so many have not lived up to their promise." Feldman says the union remains committed to seeing charters succeed, but says that will only happen if states pass tough new accountability laws--or enforce the ones they already have. Otherwise, says Feldman, "It's an opportunity lost."