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Charter schools remain subject of debate

By Kathleen Kingsbury

Students at charter school Fulton Science Academy often learn through hands-on methods.
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(CNN) -- The cheerleading squad and the math team rarely compete for members at most middle schools, but at Fulton Science Academy, they are often second choices to the Chess Club.

The charter school in Alpharetta, Georgia, has a highly tailored math and science curriculum that stresses problem solving. Students work in small groups to tackle math problems and learn science and robotics through a hands-on approach aimed at complementing its attendees' aptitudes.

"Math and science were always my favorites," says eighth-grader Blake Lanham, 13. "Now everybody is really into them."

Kim Parker says she sent her son Jeremy to Fulton Science Academy when it opened in September 2002 because of that emphasis.

"You have to look at what is best for your kids," says Parker, whose son is now an eighth-grader at Fulton Science Academy. "Charter schools give you a choice over being stuck sending them to the public school down the street."

Charter schools are publicly financed schools that operate largely independent of government regulation, which makes them the subject of debate among some in the public school and education communities.

Proponents laud such programs as innovative, efficient alternatives to low-performing traditional public schools. President Bush has proposed $318 million in federal funds for charter schools in his 2005 budget.

"You see, charter schools say to the world, 'If you got a better idea, show up and show us whether or not you can do a better job of challenging the status quo if the status quo is failing,' " Bush said in a speech last summer.

Some in the education field, however, argue that charter schools take precious public dollars away from traditional schools.

"It's grossly unfair," says Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "Charter schools affect a small percentage of the community at a large cost to the majority."

About 2,700 charter schools nationwide have opened since 1991 and serve nearly 700,000 students in 36 states and the District of Columbia, according to the federal Department of Education. States write their own charter laws, which vary in the amount of oversight and money the nontraditional schools receive.

Once a charter is approved, states generally hold the school accountable for performance through standardized test scores. A school can be closed if it doesn't meet standards outlined in its charter.

Personal connections

Beyond the name, charter schools have little in common collectively. Many teach disadvantaged students, and others cater to the especially gifted. Most serve a niche, such as an international or environmental emphasis, though some are advertised as "back to basics."

One of the charter school movement's greatest benefits is that schools can be tailored, according to Phil Andrews, Georgia Charter School Association president.

"It's parents who most commonly start charter schools," Andrews says. "So the community gets to decide what kind of school will most meet the neighborhood's needs."

Having a choice in schools often also can help students, like Blake Lanham, discover and develop their academic strengths.

Chess club is a popular activity at Fulton Science Academy, a charter school emphasizing problem solving.

"They allow schools to fit to kids instead of kids fitting to schools," says Jeanne Allen, president of the national school choice advocacy group Center for Education Reform. "Mandatory school assignment proves to have detrimental consequences to students."

MTA's Boudreau argues that it is actually the charter programs that have hurt students, the majority of whom remain in conventional public schools. Because of the public funding that goes to charter programs, traditional schools must increase class sizes, cut extracurricular activities and end their own pioneering initiatives, Boudreau explains.

"Most charter schools don't have to work with the local school system," Boudreau says, "so they aren't necessarily benefiting the local community."

Boudreau disapproves of for-profit companies running charter schools because state funding goes directly into companies' pockets, she says.

"These are businessman who have no commitment to education," Boudreau says. "Stockholders make a profit off of taxpayers' money."

But charter schools are public schools, Allen asserts, and money should move to the charter school when a student enrolls, the same way it would if the student were to switch school districts. Charter schools do not select their students, but instead must welcome any student who wishes to enroll.

Charter programs can, however, cap their enrollment, which allows them to offer low teacher-student ratios. Schools often advertise for students through mailings or newspaper ads in surrounding communities. If demand exceeds the classroom slots, students are then chosen through lotteries. Last year that system let Fulton Science Academy have only seven students per teacher versus traditional public schools' 26-to-1 average ratio in the same county.

"There can be a personal connection between students and faculty," says Fulton Science Academy Principal Selim Ozdemir. "I know the names of all my students, their parents, even their pets."

Quality questioned

Charter schools' budgets are also smaller than public schools, which presents certain obstacles. States rarely provide funds for capital costs. Schools must also recruit students and train teachers, especially ones that have a specialized curriculum like Fulton Science Academy. Overcoming such challenges show charter schools must be more efficient than their traditional counterparts, Ozdemir says.

"I have less resources and more costs. I have to look at my students as $8,000 walking through the door," Ozdemir says.

The charter school operates inside a converted warehouse, "but for the last two years, we've been in the black at the end of the year," Ozdemir says.

start quoteCharter schools haven't been around long enough and don't serve a large enough part of the population to know their long-term effect.end quote
-- Education professor Michael Kirst

Lower budgets can force charter schools to rely on inexperienced or unlicensed teachers, an April 2003 study found. After surveying charter school principals and teachers nationwide, professors from three California universities concluded that 48 percent of teachers in the average charter school lack a teaching certificate, compared with 9 percent of teachers in the average public school who lack one. Charter schools, like private ones, do not have to hire certified teachers.

"We found that unless state funding formulas change and charters can hire more experienced teachers, then they can't effect the change they were created for," says Stanford University education professor Michael Kirst, one of the study's authors.

Boudreau says her organization, like many teachers groups, is concerned about the quality of education students receive at some charter schools. Indeed, several states have shut down charter schools, citing poor test scores or failure to reach goals set in charters.

Kirst says it is too soon to judge charter schools as a whole.

"Charter schools haven't been around long enough and don't serve a large enough part of the population to know their long-term effect," Kirst says. "We still can't tell if traditional public schools will rise to the challenge or be further dragged down."

Ozdemir counters his detractors with his charter school's test scores, the top in reading and second-highest in science for its county. Fulton Science Academy will open this school year with 140 students more than last year.

Ozdemir says, "Our parents are customers served, and they're coming back for more."

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