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Students Thriving in Charter Schools
June 2005
By Tom Scullen

Wisconsin citizens place a high value on education, and it shows: On various measures, our students consistently rank among the best in the nation.

This remarkable achievement is due to our well-trained teachers, state and local leadership, involved parents and community support. Charter schools are playing an increasingly important role in that success story.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster, at a recent state charter school conference, said charter schools "are critical in making schools learning environments for all children." She added, "Charter schools encourage community and parental involvement and innovative teaching practices within the system of accountability for results in public education."

In proclaiming May 1-7 as Charter Schools Week, Gov. Jim Doyle noted that Wisconsin was one of the first 10 states in the nation to pass a law that created public charter schools. The governor added that the charter school initiative is intended to boost student achievement; stimulate innovation; expand choices for parents, students and teachers; and foster improvements in all public schools.

Charter schools are public, non-sectarian schools created through a contract, or "charter" between the school and the sponsoring school board or other chartering authority. The number of charter schools in Wisconsin has grown from eight in 1995 to 161 this year, serving more than 23,000 students. Charter schools are now an integral part of Wisconsin's public educational system.

Charter schools have been created by groups of teachers, parents, members of the community and school districts themselves. They are held answerable to their sponsor, which in most cases in our state is the local school board. The emphasis is on school site accountability for results, flexibility and innovation.

How are charter schools doing? Preliminary findings of a comprehensive study by UW-Madison researcher John Witte show that Wisconsin's charter schools are doing better than traditional public schools in ensuring that students achieve the proficient level of performance on state tests. According to Professor Witte, standardized assessment results for fourth and eighth grades are favorable for charter schools, and the findings hold up over various tests and comparison schools. Charter schools are also fulfilling their mission of offering parents and students a wide array of educational choices.

"Green" schools with environmental-based programs; schools with an engineering focus; virtual/online charter schools; schools that incorporate fine arts into the curriculum; language immersion schools; schools that emphasize student wellness and healthy lifestyles; schools with an aviation and science focus; and public Montessori schools: These are just a sample of innovative charter schools in our state.

Charter Schools Week is a great opportunity for citizens to celebrate the successes of students and rededicate ourselves to the work ahead: continuing to improve our public schools for the benefit of all children.

I urge readers to take advantage of National Charter Schools Week to learn more about charter schools. Many charter schools will be holding school tours, showcasing student achievement and sponsoring celebrations during this week.

I especially urge parents and students to investigate charter school opportunities. A charter school may be a natural fit for you. There are hundreds of sources of information about charter schools on the Internet, including the Web site of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association at There are also sources of information and support for starting a charter school. Contact the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for information about grants for planning and starting up a charter school.

Nearly 3,400 charter schools in 40 states across America will celebrate their achievements and positive impacts on young people during the sixth National Charter Schools Week. You can join the celebration and foster choices in public education through charter schools.

Tom Scullen is President of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association

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