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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Un-Chartered Territory?

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charter schools

The American charter school movement, launched in the late 1980s, has been built on the notion of small schools that remove decision-making from distant bureaucrats and return it to teachers and parents. Yet now a new study suggests that for-profit charters-the fastest growing segment of the market-are replicating some aspects of both the size of public schools and the centralized top-down, decision-making of the public school system.

"Many charters are growing in size to the point where they rival traditional public schools," write the study's authors in the December 2004 Social Sciences Quarterly, a special issue on "Social Science Examines Education." "The most corporate segments of the charter school enterprise are associated not only with growing scale but, on at least some important dimensions, a locus of decision-making outside the school and frequently outside the local community or even the state."

The study was co-authored by Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education at Teachers College.

Beginning in the 1930s, the authors relate, America moved to a larger-scale, industrialized model for its public schools aimed at increasing cost-efficiency. One result was that between 1937 and 1987, the number of public schools in the United States shrank by 100,000. Another was that, as schools became larger, new layers of bureaucracy were added, and a gap opened between those who made policy and those who carried it out.

The charter movement was born largely in response to those  trends. Yet the Social Sciences Quarterly study-based on a survey of all charters in the states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.-finds that charters founded or co-founded by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) are different from other charter schools in meaningful ways.

EMO-founded charter schools, for example, were more than 80 percent larger than others, most of which were more "mission-oriented" schools (those founded by a social service agency or a community of like-minded teachers and parents that are devoted to a common purpose, such as teaching methodology or racial or ethnic identity).

Among the for-profit charters, decisions about facilities, curriculum, testing and student discipline were less likely to be made at the school level. There were no significant differences in school-level decision-making about the recruitment of teachers and students.

The findings are significant because for-profit charters-particularly those run by large national concerns-are growing at a faster pace than mission-oriented charters and accounting for a disproportionately large share of students. In the study, for-profit charters made up 16 percent of the schools surveyed, but accounted for over 26 percent of the total student population.

The study's authors take no stand on whether their findings bode well or ill for charters and their students. But in an accompanying commentary piece, Henig argues that it is critical to understand that there are different types of charter schools, and to learn about their various practices and track records.

"Charter schools are an interesting and potentially important policy experiment, incorporating a diverse array of sub-experiments, some of which may be very worthy of emulation," Henig writes. "But…it is also true…that some charter schools are failing on multiple dimensions, that some careful studies find no positive impact on test scores or positive competitive effect on traditional school systems, and that there is a lot about the phenomenon that we simply do not yet understand."

Henig's co-authors are Heath Brown of George Washington University, Natalie Lacireno-Paquet of the University of Massachusetts Boston and Thomas T. Holyoke of Hastings College.

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