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Charter School Growth Carries a Price

(First of a three-part series this week on innovative schools.)


At first glance, the dramatic increase in the number of charter schools across the country seems to assure their place as the No. 1 player in the parental choice movement. But news reports published just two days apart raise questions about how much confidence can be placed in them.

On Oct. 7, The New York Times focused on the LEARN School Network in Chicago ("Charter Education Expanding in Chicago"). Greg White, the chief executive, was forced to rely on two $1 million grants last month from Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network and the U.S. Department of Education to stay in business. LEARN was not alone. The Noble Charter School Network, also in Chicago, received $3.3 million from the same Department of Education grant.

Then on Oct. 9, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mike Piscal, the founder and operator of the Inner City Education Foundation, one of the nation's largest charter school companies, resigned because of a financial crisis that will result in midyear layoffs of an undetermined number of teachers ("Head of troubled charter school company resigns"). In an effort to keep ICEF afloat, former mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad donated $100,000 and $500,000, respectively. In an editorial on Oct. 17, the Los Angeles Times attributed ICEF's troubles to hasty expansion, and concluded that charter schools aren't cure-alls ("Don't expect miracles").

What is troubling about the latest news is that it reflects a pattern. Since charter schools began, entrepreneurs with little or no educational experience have seen an opportunity to make a fast buck. Already 1.4 million students are enrolled in 4,600 charter schools. The Race to the Top initiative assures that many more will be created.

But parents need to exercise caution when deciding if they should enroll their children. In Sept. 2004, the California Charter Academy, the largest chain of publicly-financed but privately-run charter schools, slid into insolvency, leaving 6,000 students with no school to attend. Ken Larson had used $100 million in state financing to create an empire of 60 mostly storefront schools.

Since California authorized charter schools in 1992, the number of such schools has grown at an uneven rate, beginning slowly until 2001 when it escalated. Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, estimates that by 2016, three-fourths of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will be in charters. That number may be wishful thinking on his part, but there is no doubt charter schools are appealing to more and more parents who are frustrated by the quality of education offered by traditional neighborhood schools.

Parents have the right to send their children to any school they wish. But at the same time, they need protection in the form of better regulation of alternative schools. We learned what happened when Wall Street was allowed to operate under its own rules. Let's not repeat the experience with children, who are our most precious asset.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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