Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 01:09 UK

Charter schools: Trick or treat?

Boston charter schools
Charter schools: winners or losers?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

Overstretched public finances, schools warned about underperformance, politicians promising innovation, teachers' union protesting...

These might seem familiar stories for any urban education system.

And Boston in the US is a microcosm of the trends in looking for ways to improve school standards.

You can see the evidence of these competing visions of education all around the city. On the subways and buses there are adverts promoting charter schools or defending the cause of the state system.

Charter schools - the type of independent schools which have inspired the Conservatives in England - are also recruiting on the radio and television.

Supported by the Obama administration, there are now almost 5,000 schools across the US - a number expected to keep rising.


They are often funded using the money that would have been spent on a state school - diverting the cash into these schools which make a virtue of innovation and commitment to the disadvantaged.

It's not so much a fight over children as a tug of love.

MATCH school building

Because just as there are passionate supporters of charter schools, on the other side of the debate there are families who see this expansion as an expensive gimmick, which threatens to dismantle state education.

In Boston, there are particular anxieties about state school standards with 12 schools last month identified as underperforming - with staff in six of these having to re-apply for their own jobs.

There are 135 schools in the Boston state school system with a budget in excess of $800m (£520m).

These include a growing number of "pilot schools", which are encouraged to experiment in a way that has echoes of academy schools in England.

There are also selective "exam schools", where applicants take a test to enter, including Boston Latin School, the oldest state school in the United States.

The pupils attending the state schools in this city are mostly Hispanic or black - about three quarters qualify for either free or subsidised school meals and two in five do not speak English as a first language.

Private schools

But many are taught outside the state sector. About a quarter of pupils do not go to the city's schools - either being taught privately or in religious schools.

Three quarters of pupils in Boston qualify for subsidised school meals

Charter schools are now a growing sector, attended by about 7% of Boston's pupils.

These schools sit somewhere across the dividing line between public and private education. They receive taxpayers' money, but they also benefit from donations from private sponsors - they serve the inner cities, but they are not part of the state system run by the elected authorities.

They do not charge fees, they can be housed in converted buildings rather than traditional schoolrooms and they have their own individual approaches to teaching and behaviour.

There are fierce and unresolved arguments over whether they are more successful than regular state schools.

Supporters say they are offering hope to the poorest communities which had been starved of educational opportunities. And advocates reject claims they drain other schools of funding, saying they only take what would have been spent less effectively in the state sector.

Critics say better results are a reflection on recruiting from more motivated families.

And opponents complain that charter schools fail too often and the state schools, which have lost funds to the charters, are still expected to act as a safety net.

A similar set of arguments are appearing in the election debate in the UK.

The Conservatives want to introduce the competitive edge of charter schools in England - wanting parents or other groups to set up schools which will offer something different from the local education authority schools.

And there are corresponding complaints about this - with warnings that this is a way of breaking up the local provision of state education.

As a signpost for how such policies might play out - in the Boston area, doubts about charters have been raised in more affluent, outlying areas, rather than in the inner city.

It raises questions about how popular sharing budgets with charter schools might be with local authorities in the shire counties and suburbs in England.

In Boston, as in the UK, the idea of more school choice for parents has political appeal - but it raises far-reaching questions about paying for it.

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