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United by a challenge for change

American charter schools reflect parental drive for better choices in their children's education, writes Andrew Rotherham

George Bernard Shaw once said that America and England are two countries separated by a common language. Yet when it comes to improving education they are two nations united by common challenges.

Both countries have taken dramatic steps in the past decade to improve their schools and are seeing encouraging results. Nonetheless, a minority of chronically low-performing schools continue to vex policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic. There are no easy answers about how to improve such schools.

A recent analysis by Ronald C Brady, who led school turnaround efforts for the state of New Jersey, found that even when states have tried hard to improve struggling schools the most effective strategies work only half the time. Pragmatism demands that in addition to working to help these schools, policy-makers must give students in them other options too.

The Conservative response is school vouchers. Conservatives believe passionately that market forces are the best remedy for a variety of thorny policy problems including education. But where vouchers have been tried in the United States results are, at best, modest, with inconclusive gains in student learning and little change to other schools. And they have created new problems for policy-makers.

In Milwaukee and Florida, even voucher proponents are calling for better public oversight after some schools abused voucher programmes. The schemes have serious drawbacks. They do little to change the educational landscape in disadvantaged communities because they do not lead to the creation of new schools.

In addition, because many private schools resist even basic measures, such as giving students the same examinations or publicly reporting on the qualifications of their staff, vouchers fail to provide parents or policy-makers with information to make informed choices about school performance or protect the public interest.

Unfortunately, too often the Left responds by resisting any expansion of parental choice and looking to state bureaucracies to deal with low-performing schools. This is a mistake because of the patchy record of success and because consumer-driven choice and customisation is an important part of larger, progressive, public-sector modernisation projects.

Thankfully, the decision facing policymakers is not whether to embrace vouchers or have little choice at all. In the US charter schooling is harnessing the best aspects of the market and the public sector while mitigating the shortcomings of both. Charter schools are publicly funded and are open to all students on a first-come first-served basis and are accountable to public agencies for their performance, finance and operations.

Charter schools receive funding for each student. But unlike US public (that is, state) schools, public charter schools can also be set up and operated by parents, teachers, community organisations and even museums and universities, as well as local education authorities.

As a result, charter schooling introduces more pluralism and community involvement into the provision of education while ensuring that public oversight follows public dollars. Because they are responsive to parents, who choose charters and are free to go elsewhere, they also have marketplace accountability. In the US, charter schooling enjoys bi-partisan support.

President Clinton made their expansion a major educational goal of his administration and President Bush supports them as well. In little more than a decade, 41 states have passed laws allowing charter schooling and there are now more than 2,700 of them around the country. Several recent studies show that many do an excellent job, often with the most challenging students.

Charter schools are found everywhere but they are prevalent in poor and minority neighbourhoods where educational problems are most acute. Some are "mom and pop" operations with one campus and often fewer than 100 students.

Others are part of not-for-profit organisations that seek to replicate a popular school model in multiple neighbourhoods.

There is a political logic to this schooling that should also appeal to progressives. As parents, particularly poor ones, seek alternatives to existing arrangements, progressives must respond so that publicly-funded schools do not become a weakly-supported option of last resort.

By championing a more pluralistic education system, progressives can improve educational options for disadvantaged students, expanding support for publicly-financed education rather than opposing parents who, understandably, seek to exit a system that is not working for their children. Of course, charter schools are not a panacea and do not relieve policy-makers of their responsibility to help struggling schools.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair, England has taken impressive steps in this direction. The Government is also experimenting with publicly-funded, privately-run schooling, through its city academies programme.

But charter schooling is more than just an immediate remedy for parents with children in under-performing schools. By encouraging new schools, charters blend the public sector and the market to provide more responsiveness and student options. They lay the foundation for a modernised education system.

Andrew Rotherham is director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centre-left think tank in Washington DC and was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for domestic policy

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