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The Debate - Cautionary Note

The staff at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, raise a cautionary note to parents, educators and administrators about charter schools.

Charter school reforms appeal to diverse audiences, by promising a compromise between public control and private markets. Advocates suggest charter schools offer choice and innovation through increased competition, while supporters of public education are mollified by continued state oversight and funding. But, as with many reforms, caution is necessary.

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Parents should be cautious, particularly in their expectations of what a charter school can do for their children. These are not private schools or academies; most are not organized in ways that differ radically from traditional public schools, and they remain subject to many of the same regulations. Other charter schools may be experimental and pioneering out of the mainstream, with new educational strategies.

Regulators and education policymakers should be cautious. Charter school operators vary in quality and experience. Little is known about how to create a high quality charter school. Evaluations have proved difficult, given their short history and interest in deliberating serving distinct student populations. Nevertheless, research indicates that start-up charter schools appear to need substantial support early on if they are to meet accountability standards. Also, different charter school types may require different amounts of resource, e.g. for capital financing; this may conflict with the demands of existing public schools.

Charter school operators vary in quality and experience.

Charter school operators should be cautious too. Despite the criticisms that traditional public schools are "obsolete" and "inefficient dinosaurs", research and recent history suggests that it is not easy to outperform these schools. Even for successful charter schools, replication is not easy: what works in one city or district might not work in another. Operators should be aware that they are providing services for which there are few buyers - the states or districts. The risk is that these buyers may change their regulations or try to renegotiate contracts after a few years.

Taxpayers should be cautious. Charter schools are primarily funded through state and local tax revenues. Oversight is required to ensure that these funds are used for the public good. But, strong oversight may impinge on the freedoms of such schools to produce excellent education that meets the needs of parents and students; and weak oversight may invite profiteering.

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