A charter school advocate sees flaws

Tom Watkins, who has been instrumental in starting charter schools in Michigan and Florida, takes an objective look at the current state of the charter-school movement. Watkins believes that a key objective of the movement is to challenge the existing public schools in a way that will improve education for all students. He describes charter-school advocates as falling into three categories: zealots and ideologues; scoundrelly entrepreneurs; and child-, parent-, and teacher-centered reformers. Many of the latter believe strongly in public education but think it is flawed. They see charter schools as pro-child and believe they can provide a choice for parents in communities with poor schools.

Watkins reports, however, that some charter schools are serving as a back-door route to using public money for private or religious schools — or as a way to make money at the expense of children’s education. He finds evidence that some charter schools breach the separation of church and state, while others neglect special-education students. Some play favorites with admission by taking only top students from the public schools or by expelling students who “do not fit” their school.

Watkins calls on advocates of charter schools to take corrective action to ensure that their school policies are democratic. He suggests they:

  • Disallow any special admissions policies and conduct independent program audits.
  • Consider amending existing statutes to revoke charters unless applications exceed available seats by at least 25 percent.
  • Restrict charters to no more than three to five years.
  • Systematically monitor charter schools to make sure they stay within the letter and spirit of the law.

Finally, he challenges school boards to remember that charter schools are public schools; to view the charter-school movement not as an adversary, but as a tool to enhance choice and learning opportunities for children; and to use the charter-school movement to force necessary changes within traditional schools.


“The Charter Challenge,” American School Board Journal, Volume 186, Number 12, December 1999, pp. 34-36.

Published in ERN February 2000 Volume 13 Number 2

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