Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education
reviewed by Sarah Tantillo - 1998
Title: Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education
Author(s): Joe Nathan
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787944548, Pages: 288, Year: 1999
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If you already know a fair amount about charter schools, Joe Nathan’s Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education will give you the sensation of reading a travel guide about your hometown. Familiar names (Ted Kolderie, Milo Cutter, Yvonne Chan), places (O’Farrell Community School, Minnesota New Country School, New Visions School), and concepts (accountability, parent and community involvement, innovation) create a reassuring terrain. You will think to yourself: Hey, I know something about this place. I know these people.
If, on the other hand, you are wondering what all the fuss is about, you need to read this book. It provides a clear and simple overview of an increasingly populated landscape. Since 1991 when the first charter school legislation was enacted in Minnesota, 28 more states plus the District of Columbia have adopted legislation, and some 700 schools will be in operation this fall. In his most recent State of the Union Address, President Clinton called for 3,000 charter schools by the year 2000.
The pace of charter school book publishing, alas, has not kept up. This book is the only mass-market hardcover focused on charter schools.1 Many journal articles have appeared, studies have been commissioned,2 and graduate students are diving headlong into the fray in a quest for dissertation topics. But I suspect that those who might write the most interesting books are too busy starting and running the schools. Which is not to say either that Nathan is a distant observer or that this book is dull. Wrong on both counts. Nathan was among the advocates for that first legislation in Minnesota. As director of the Center for School Change at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (at the University of Minnesota) he has participated in both research and technical assistance.3 His early involvement has enabled him to produce a useful historiography of the movement–to capture the evolving union perspective, for example–and to get it right because he was there.
What I like best about this book is its disarming logic. Nathan anticipates the reader who may be critical of charter schools by defusing the controversies that surround them. In the Introduction, he outlines the differences between charter schools and other forms of school choice with a nonchalance so methodical that he might be reciting the recipe for a cake. For example:
Why has the charter school concept been so much more attractive than voucher proposals to state legislators? The charter school concept differs from the voucher concept in four key ways. First, charter schools must be nonsectarian. Voucher proposals, however, usually allow voucher funds to go not only to public schools but also to private and parochial schools. Public funding for parochial schools in particular raises fundamental, deeply emotional and contentious issues of separation of church and state. By insisting in the enabling legislation that charter schools be nonsectarian, policy makers avoid this controversy. (p. 6)
Notice how Nathan avoids "this controversy" himself, by attributing the pro-charter/antivoucher position to the legislators. He deploys this same, seemingly objective, approach to list the problems with magnet schools, privatization, and school site management, and extracts from these comparisons the reasons why better public schools are needed. Mainly, he says, parents and teachers are frustrated. Again it is the parents and teachers who have chosen the alternative; Nathan has merely noted its existence.
So, having shown us why we need charter schools and why they are more palatable than other school choice options, he gives us, in Part One, a tour of seven of the most successful charter schools in the country. For critics who want to know "What do they really look like?" this chapter provides two-to-seven-page sketches of these good schools.
Part II addresses these questions: How are charter schools changing the system? What influence do they exert on existing district schools? What roles have unions played so far, and what roles might they play in this movement?
Part III discusses how to start a charter school. Given the differences among laws in various states, the advice in this section is necessarily broad and generic–such as: "Understand State and Local District Processes for Sponsoring a Charter School" (p. 122), "Develop Your Three-Month Work Plan" (p. 124), "Make Your Organization Tax-Exempt," (p. 125), and "Visit Charter Schools" (p. 125). Although this book is essential reading as an introduction to the charter school concept, anyone seriously planning to start a charter school should dig a little deeper. State-specific handbooks have already been written for several states,4 and others are in progress.5
Part IV, "Where To, What Next," examines some "key early lessons," which are more like observations than lessons, as in "Charter Schools Can Have a Positive Effect on Student Achievement, Attendance, and Attitude" (p. 168), "Charter Schools Are Serving Many Youngsters Who Have Not Succeeded in Traditional Public Schools" (p. 171), and "The Charter School Concept Will Reach Its Potential Only If the Details of Charter Legislation Are Right" (p. 173). These "lessons" will probably remain true over time, whereas Appendix A, "State-by-State Activity and Contacts," and Appendix C, "Additional Resources," have lost their earlier shine. Appendix B, which offers Ted Kolderie’s "Model Charter School Law," will probably outlive us all. The quest for the perfect law, like the quest for the perfect school, is eternal.
1 For those who seek more than a basic primer, the World Wide Web features more than a dozen well-developed sites. See http://csr.syr.edu/ and http://www.uscharterschools.org for two solid examples that are hotlinked to many others. Technical assistance for those interested in starting a charter school is also available from state departments of education and from independent statewide resource centers such as the Charter School Resource Center in New Jersey, the Charter Schools Project at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, and the Charter School Resource Center at the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts.
2 The Hudson Institute recently completed "Charter Schools in Action," a two-year project involving 14 states, 60 schools, and 1,300 individuals; and the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a National Study of Charter Schools conducted by RPP International and the University of Minnesota, a four-year research effort (Sept. 1995-Sept. 1999) to document and analyze the charter school movement. The First-Year Report surveyed 90 percent of all schools in operation in 1995-1996.
3 Nathan and Alex Medler collaborated on one of the earliest studies of charter schools: "Charter Schools: What Are They Up To?" (Denver: Education Commission of the States, and Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs Center for School Change, 1995).
4 The Massachusetts Charter School Handbook, created by Linda Brown at the Pioneer Institute, and The Charter School Development Guide (1997 California Edition), by Eric Premack, are two fine examples.
5 For example, check out http://www.injersey.com/Education/CSRC for the budding New Jersey Charter School Handbook.