Charters Left and Right

Comparing charter schools in Idaho and Chicago


In an August speech to a group of public school superintendents, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced $650 million in stimulus funding for school innovation, on top of $4.35 billion already promised for the states most prepared to reform their education systems.

In the speech, Duncan reminded the superintendents of the origins of charter schools, public schools that are freed from some of the bureaucracy of traditional public schools.

"Good charter schools increase the number of quality educational options available to parents who previously had no choice where to send their children," Duncan said.

Idaho's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has also made charter schools a priority in his administration, hiring a school choice coordinator and offering technical assistance to groups wanting to form new charter schools.

Luna, a Republican, also speaks of choice as the way to reform education to "meet the needs of all students," emphasizing that school choice is a bipartisan concept, which enjoyed support under the Bush administration and now from the Obama administration.

"Their paradigm, when it comes to education, is what they experienced in Chicago," Luna said of President Barack Obama and Duncan, who was head of the Chicago Public Schools before moving to Washington, D.C. "It's the same proven principle--give parents more choice."

But because of different demographics of parents, different choices they make and state education policies, charter schools look a lot different in Idaho than they do in Chicago.

Idaho's charter schools attract students who are already doing above average in traditional public schools and are less ethnically diverse than the districts in which they are located (by a quarter to a third for Hispanic students), according to a 2006 study led by Vanderbilt University professor Dale Ballou. For the most part, Idaho charter schools have fewer students who receive free and reduced lunch benefits than neighboring traditional schools, the study shows.

Ballou told BW that it is not possible to generalize when talking about the culture of charter schools across the country.

"There is no one culture of charter schools. That's the bottom line," Ballou said.

Idaho is a rural state with a quarter of a million public school students. Chicago is the nation's third largest urban school district, with almost a half-million students.

But when Obama and Duncan speak of charter schools, they often turn to their experience in Chicago, where 74 percent of students are from low-income households and where charter schools attract more black students and nearly as many Hispanic students as the traditional public schools, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

Chicago has an Afrocentric charter school named after Malcolm X's wife and a yoga and healthy eating charter called the Namaste Charter School, which has a long waiting list.

"For some families, that's a little too hippy dippy for them," said Carlos Perez, public policy director from the Illinois Network. "We've seen that a parent wants to send their child to a school where, first and foremost, they are safe."

In Idaho, the largest number of charter schools are either based on the Harbor School method--an educational philosophy first developed in Nampa that stresses academically accelerated lessons and school discipline--or are virtual schools, online charter schools that are popular, particularly with large numbers of homeschooled children in Idaho.

While the Harbor School model was developed by educators, most of the charter schools in Idaho were started by groups of parents who applied for a charter from their local district or from the state.

"Ultimately, the people who decide what a charter school will look like, it's the parents who choose to attend them," Luna said.

But Idaho is moving into a second generation of charter schools, with a professional-technical charter school and a school focused on learning-disabled students, now in Twin Falls. And more districts are starting their own charter schools, Luna said.

In Chicago, most charters are started by teachers, who have a particular educational philosophy, or by community-based organizations, which start a school as an extension of their service to the community, Perez said.

"It's not that they are saying the system is wrong, but they are saying this is the way that we want to run a school, so let's do that," Perez said.

Parents starting their own charters is more of a suburban phenomenon, he said.

Ballou, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., said the Obama administration likes charter schools like the KIPP Academies that have proven track records for helping disadvantaged students. But there is no singular vision coming from the administration for what a charter school should be, he said.

"I think they have a general philosophy that we need to open this thing up," Ballou said.

But there are political limits, and one Idaho charter school is testing them by fighting for the right to use the Bible in classes.

"I don't think they expect that they are suddenly going to find themselves financing thousands of small schools founded by parents dissatisfied with the lack of school prayer," Ballou said.

Luna and charter advocates like Perez agree on the concepts of choice and on the politics of charters as well. Having a Democratic administration pushing school choice has changed the thinking on charter schools in a Democratic city like Chicago.

"What we've seen, the history of charter schools has been a more conservative history ... the free market piece of the concept is a conservative idea, but we're finding that what's happening in the classroom is progressive," Perez said. "That's quite nicely confused some folks."