AMERICAN charter schools, one of the models for the Government's new city academies, have been accused of underpaying teachers, nepotism and covert race and class discrimination.
The criticisms are directed at the growing number of Michigan charter schools run by private companies - rather than the
charter school movement as a whole - but they provide a potent reminder of the problems that can bedevil private-state partnerships.
The study's author, Gary Miron, of Western Michigan University, found that nearly three-quarters of Michigan's 165 charter schools, which are state funded but largely autonomous, were being run by for-profit organisations.
In company-managed schools, teachers' starting salaries were typically 10 to 25 per cent lower than average. And some charter schools had established private companies solely to avoid the state retirement system.
Some charter school managers had recruited family members and friends, and nepotism was also evident in school board appointments. "Strategic placement of spouses, relatives and close friends on the school board ... is very common among Michigan charter schools, both those operated by education management organisations (mostly for-profit companies) and those that are not."
Miron also notes that the number of minority students in Michigan's charter schools dropped by 20 per cent between 1996 and 1998. "This suggests that the new schools being established are moving to the suburbs," he says.
This finding may have special relevance for the UK as the Government is hoping that city academies will help to revitalise inner-city education.
Ten "pathfinder" academies, established by businesses, individuals, churches or voluntary bodies, will be opened in September 2001.
Charter schools have a similarly wide spread of sponsors, but Miron found that the company-run schools were much more choosy about student selection
They aimed to recruit CAPABLE pupils (children who are able, popular, apt, bright, literate and at the elementary level). They also wanted parents who CARE (charitable, available, resourceful and English-speaking).
They selected the desired clientele partly through pre-enrolment interviews and parent-school contracts. But there were more subtle ways of discouraging disadvantaged students. Some companies did not provide school transport or hot lunches and ensured that school promotional literature was not distributed in the most disadvantaged areas.
Nevertheless, Miron says there is no evidence that charter schools, as a group, are performing better than traditional public schools. What they seemed to have done was make other state-funded schools more accountable.
Traditional public schools had responded to competition from charter schools by introducing all-day kindergartens, increasing adult supervision in playgrounds, providing more before and after-school programmes, and communicating more with parents.
But Miron does not believe that these positive developments outweigh the defects of Michigan's charter schools. "Charter school proponents suggested that these schools would be innovative, highly accountable and efficacious," he says.
"It was also believed that they would lead to increased diversity within the public school sector, that teachers and parents would be major stakeholders, and that the reform would promote school-based management."
These objectives had not been achieved and local democracy had been eroded because many charter schools are run by national education companies.
"This has led to the spread of identical 'cookie-cutter' charter schools. And decisions (about the running of these schools) are now being made from great distances - from as far away as Boston and California."
"What's public about Michigan's charter schools?" by Gary Miron, The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5178 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org