Charter Schools Ahead of Curve on School Size

Published January 1, 2000

U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley plugged for small schools in his recent back-to-school message.

“We need to find ways to create small, supportive learning environments that give students a sense of connection to each other,” Riley said. “That’s hard to do when we’re building high schools the size of shopping malls. Size matters.”

Riley was echoing the new conventional wisdom of the education establishment. The National Association of Secondary School Principals now touts 600 students as the ideal size for a high school. That replaces the 1950s’ and 1960s’ mantra that bigger was better. In 1959, Harvard President James Bryant Conant headed a study panel that concluded, “the number of small high schools must be drastically reduced” to achieve economies of scale.

The Clinton-Gore Administration is backing a school construction program that would use federal dollars to pay the interest on $25 billion in school-construction bonds. In support, Riley’s Education Department frets that the average public school in the United States is 42 years old, and school buildings begin “rapid deterioration” after 40 years.

But there’s a new breed of public schools to factor into the equation: charter schools. These schools often make good use of the old school structures Riley considers obsolete. In addition, charter schools are:

  • small;
  • resourceful in meeting educational needs; and
  • typically use no tax money for their capital needs.

Local teachers, parents, and students are the driving forces behind charter schools. Sharing a common dream as to what education should be, they come together and seek a charter from a state or local authority. When it comes to facilities, they have to be resourceful, because they rarely get help from the local school district.

Consider the case of the 67-student New Century Charter School near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Eve Patterson–who was the school’s first graduate last year and now serves as an administrative assistant there–describes it as a place where students “learn to love subjects they used to hate” and no one is left adrift. But it took perseverance for the school itself not to be homeless.

When plans for a donated facility fell through because of neighborhood opposition just months before the school was to open, New Century’s leaders had to scramble. Fortunately, they found help from a former English teacher, Bruce Stone, who owns a local movie theater and said they could use it for the fall. The overhead projectors were helpful and the staff designed lapboards for students to use while in their seats. New Century eventually moved to a 1930s schoolhouse that had been renovated as a community center and artists’ haven.

That kind of resourcefulness is typical of charter schools around the country, most notably in Arizona, which leads the nation with more than 300 charter schools. The Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy is snuggled comfortably on the 400-acre grounds of a museum of Native American art and history, which shares its campus and exhibits fully with the school. Arizona also is pioneering with builders to erect charter schools at the same time that new housing developments go up.

The Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute calculated that if just $650 of per-pupil allocations were set aside for capital needs, most school districts could build schools on a pay-as-you-go basis, without borrowing at all.

Charter schools usually are smaller than 600 students, which speaks to “size matters.” But more significantly, they have the “sense of connection” that comes from teachers and students having chosen to be there in pursuit of common interests. They are the kinds of places where, as Eve Patterson says, your most-hated subject can become your favorite.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is < a href="mailto:[email protected]">[email protected].