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Book Review

 The Charter School Experiment: Expectations, Evidence, and Implications

From the conclusion: “Are charter schools simply intended to expand the range of choices available to parents? Or are we hoping to create incentives that raise the overall quality of educational options for children? Do charter schools represent an attempt to bring greater efficiencies to public education? Or do the increasing demands for funding parity with other public schools reflect a shift in goals toward equitable inputs, if not outcomes? Are charter schools meeting the expectations for innovation through their phenomenal record in creating partnerships and governance arrangements? Or should we expect to see dramatic developments in classroom practice as well?

“While the answers to many of these questions are still disputed, as the contributors to this volume demonstrate, there is indeed now an established empirical record with which to assess what works and what is not working, and why. Although there are still disputes about interpreting particular studies and trends, the overall picture is pretty clear that charter schools are no panacea for the ills that afflict the larger public education enterprise.

“Although we have seen some bright spots and some stellar schools in the charter movement, after two decades, the movement as a whole has so far failed to live up to the early expectations that drove its expansion….

“The rapid spread of charter schools across the country, and the many waiting lists of families hoping to enroll their children in these schools, stand as testaments to the compelling nature of the idea, even if the evidence of the schools’ effectiveness is less than compelling…. Despite any apparent shortcomings, we have no doubt that charter schools will be a prominent fixture on the educational landscape for some time to come.”

When charter schools first arrived on the American educational scene, few observers suspected that within two decades thousands of these schools would be established, serving almost a million and a half children across 40 states. The widespread popularity of these schools, and of the charter movement itself, speaks to the unique and chronic desire for substantive change in American education. As an innovation in governance, the ultimate goal of the charter movement is to improve learning opportunities for all students—not only those who attend charter schools but also students in public schools that are affected by competition from charters.

In The Charter School Experiment, a group of leading scholars traces the development of one of the most dynamic and powerful areas of education reform. Contributors with varying perspectives on the charter movement carefully evaluate how well charter schools are fulfilling the goals originally set out for them: introducing competition to the school sector, promoting more equitable access to quality schools, and encouraging innovation to improve educational outcomes. They explore the unintended effects of the charter school experiment over the past two decades, and conclude that charter schools are entering a new phase of their development, beginning to serve purposes significantly different from those originally set out for them.