If you want to know what charter schools are doing, visit the resoundingly successful Boston Renaissance School, one of the country's largest charter schools.
The brainchild of the nonprofit Horace Mann Foundation, Boston Renaissance opened in September '95 with 637 students in kindergarten through fifth grade â€” including kids with disabilities and special education students.
Two years later, the school enrolled 1,050 students â€” 80% of them minorities â€” in kindergarten through eighth grade. A waiting list of 1,000 kids exists for the few seats that become available each year.
Thus far, the new school has performed better than even its early supporters hoped. A recent study found that while Boston Renaissance's students scored below the national average on standardized tests when they entered the school, after one year they performed at or above grade levels.
Why does Boston Renaissance work so well? It has more flexibility to tackle problems than a traditional public school does.
Here is how it works. A school receives a "charter" from a school board, state education department or other agency to run for a limited time â€” usually five years. It must meet strict standards to have its charter renewed.
As long as the school â€” which is public and open to all comers â€” meets the standards, it's free to skirt suffocating school regulations and union work rules. If it doesn't deliver, parents can take their kids â€” and the public money that accompanies them elsewhere.
Thirty-three states have charter school laws. Some 800 charter schools are running across the U.S. They enroll upward of 170,000 kids. The schools come in various sizes and flavors, from the staunchly traditional to the ultra-left wing.
The absence of a union contract adds to a charter school's flexibility. Free from union rules, teachers spend more time in class. Boston Renaissance offers 200 instructional days a year, 20 more than other Boston public schools.
The school day is also longer: Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students at Boston Renaissance arrive at 7:30 a.m., and don't leave until 3:30 p.m. Teachers must be in the school from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., and often stay later.
Boston Renaissance's flexibility extends to the way it organizes teaching and how it pays its teachers. The school arranges teachers in teams and has master teachers supervise the work of less experienced colleagues.
Ordinary teachers take home about the same pay they would in most public schools, although master teachers can earn more through a merit pay system. And Boston Renaissance can fire teachers who don't measure up.
Since charter school teachers lack tenure and serve under renewable performance contracts, it must be hard to find good help, right? Wrong. Resumes swamp Boston Renaissance from frustrated teachers who work for the region's other public schools.
Teacher Kathy 0' Flaherty explains why: "We don't have to wait for the district to decide that what we are doing is within the rules. Also, we don't need the approval of the union. So we can really put the interests of the kids first."
Competition from charter schools is jolting some school districts to loosen the stranglehold on their own schools.
Fearing it would lose students to schools like Boston Renaissance, the Boston School Committee and the local teachers union decided to prove the regular school system could innovate, too. In a historic agreement., the two parties agreed to launch six Boston "pilot schools" with many of the same freedoms charter schools now enjoy, in order to forestall greater change.
Not all charters are as effective as Boston Renaissance. Some, faced with huge start-up costs, have fallen apart. Others have been frauds. Many states don't yet have the mechanisms in place to help legitimate charter schools surmount their early difficulties or to help parents smoke out humbug.
But charter schools don't escape scrutiny the way most public schools do. If a charter flunks, it's likely to be shut down or to have its weaknesses exposed. At least a dozen charters around the U.S. have been closed so far.
Still, despite the occasional bad charter school, it's clear that many Americans are desperate for alternatives to failing public schools. Nowhere is this more true than in inner-city neighborhoods, where parents grasp at charter schools, tuition tax credits, vouchers â€” anything to get their kids out of a system that condemns many of them to a bleak future.
And what's telling is that charter schools are so popular with those who know them best: the kids, parents and teachers directly involved.