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Position:Charter schools

What's right and wrong with the charter schools

A FEW MONTHS AGO, BILL CLINTON stood before Congress and the new millennium to deliver his State of the Union address. Turning to the subject that now seems to trump all others--education--he noted that when he took office, there was only one charter school "in all America," and that now there are 1,700. He challenged the nation to speed that growth even further, raising the number of such independent public schools by next year to 3,000.

If he'd chatted with Alexis Adorador, he might have thought about taking things a bit more slowly.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ms. Adorador, a counselor and administrator at the Oakland Charter Academy, was not counseling any students. She was alone in her office gripping a cordless phone, trying to transform herself into a tax expert.

Her middle school, which serves 175 mostly Spanish-speaking students, was one of America's first charter schools. It had a long string of luck finding cheap space in which to hold classes, but last year, that luck ran out. The school's good fortune began when it opened in 1993, under a $1 per year lease from the local Catholic diocese. That gift, however, was intended only to help the school get started, and was limited to two years. When the lease ran out, in 1995, it came time to move the marine-gray trailers that serve as classrooms. Still under a lucky star, the school landed another sweetheart arrangement: a parcel in an industrial park, heavily subsidized by the local port authority, for only $25,000 per year. Granted, the new home amid the factories and stacks of shipping containers, walking distance from nowhere, had its drawbacks. Indeed, to an outsider, the ramshackle portable school, with no gymnasium, lunchroom, or stage, might have seemed the picture of ghetto deprivation. But as odd as the setting appeared, some parents and teachers enjoyed the isolation, and the trailers seemed to fit right in.

Like all good things, however, the school's charmed lease on life had to end, and last summer the bank foreclosed on the school's industrial park landlord. With little cash to spare, the school's supporters made numerous pleas for a cheap building, or a deal directly with the bank, or at least a lot where they could put their nomadic trailers. The search came to naught, and they finally found a home--too small and far too expensive--ironically in a defunct bank branch near the school's first site. Now, from a total budget of about $800,000, the school must make $65,000 quarterly payments on a $200,000 renovation debt, plus pay $6,000 in monthly rent. (The rent will climb steadily to $10,000 per month by 2002.) Because California doesn't provide a dime to charter schools for space, all of that comes out of the same funds that would otherwise pay for books, materials, and teacher salaries. As a result, the school pays its teachers between $2,000 and $7,000 less per year than the surrounding Oakland district, which itself has some of the lowest salaries in the area. Amid a serious statewide teacher shortage, the pay scale is a desperate handicap in recruiting skilled teachers. Likewise, the massive payout for the building has cut funding for books and other essentials nearly to zero.

"We have spent every last nickel on this facility," Adorador laments. "I think we bought one set of math books [this year]. We have not bought instructional materials." And now, to add insult to injury, the renovation has increased the value of the building--and with it the school's property tax bill. But the school is probably eligible for an exemption from the tax, much of which goes, of course, to fund schools. So rather than counseling kids, Adorador is on the phone with an advisor in the Mayor's office. "I'm trying to figure out how to become a commercial real estate agent and get an exemption," she grumbles. "What's typical about it is, charter schools always have staffs that are working outside their expertise."

Growing Pains

Adorador's situation highlights the gap between the vast expectations policy makers and parents hold for charter schools, and the real struggles these courageous upstarts face in trying to survive. These schools present remarkable opportunities for experimentation in the classroom, and for bringing families into their children's educational life. But as with all serious, complex problems, the woes of education do not invite quick, cheap fixes. Where charter schools are marketed as a magic wand that rapidly and unfailingly will produce well-educated kids and big-system reform, they are being grossly oversold. Charter schools have the potential to enliven the debate, and perhaps to restore hope for public schooling...

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