The overselling of charter schools

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Charter schools are back in the news, and not all of it matches the glowing rhetoric that first accompanied the idea of introducing these innovative, independent public schools to this state. Early promoters swore the more charters a state had, the better. Enough time has passed that charters around the country are developing a history, warts and all.

Voters in this state turned down a charter-schools initiative last year, but due to the natural cycle of things, another bill or initiative eventually will be introduced. Backers should use the interim time to learn from mistakes other states have made.

The point is not to abandon the idea of charter schools. A reasonable number of smart charter schools accountable to school boards makes enormous sense. Last year's statewide initiative had it about right.

But charter schools running willy-nilly with too few restrictions and too little oversight is a recipe for troubles showing up Arizona, Texas and Michigan:

• The Texas House of Representatives has passed a bill calling for a two-year moratorium on new charter schools. Several schools have shut down after their leaders ran out of money or left town.

• While many charters in Arizona and Michigan are working well, the problems at other charter schools cry out for more oversight and control, U.S. News & World Report reported in an exhaustive, stinging review of charters schools.

Many charter schools don't have labs and libraries. Basic classroom supplies are lacking. Too often, enrollment numbers submitted to claim state funds differ dramatically from real attendance.

Next time a bill or an initiative surfaces in Washington, and one will, backers have to be painfully honest. Charter schools are a lot like other public schools. Some work, some don't.

Early in the charter debate, zealots touted these schools as the be-all, end-all fix for public education.

The truth is, charter schools, done right, offer promise for experimentation and innovation. But they should be introduced carefully, beginning with a limited number to allow their managers to work out the kinks. Charter schools should always be accountable to school boards, and the system should build in a reasonable amount of oversight.