Dee Thomas will never forget the sunny day in August 1995 when a group of her charter-school students, grades 7-12, visited a nature preserve. While catching frogs, the kids began to notice unusual deformities in many of the animals' legs. The youngsters, who attend Minnesota New Country School, in Henderson, Minnesota, whipped out their notebooks, took digital photographs, and posted their findings on the school's Web site. In no time at all, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency got involved, and the press was on the scene.

"Suddenly those students realized they could make a difference in what was going on in the environment. Their voices could be heard," says Thomas, a New Country School adviser. There are no "teachers" at this school; adviser better reflects its teacher-student dynamic. A teacher's role there is to guide students to act as leaders, to think for themselves, and to follow their interests. Indeed, four years later, some of the same students are still working on the frog project — testing water quality, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and giving lectures around the country.

Deborah Lott, former principal of the Arlington Renaissance Academy, a small charter in Texas, has a vivid memory of her own: the blustery day in March 1999 that her 45 charter high school students, shivering in their unheated makeshift classroom, finally received their shipment of tables and chairs. The furniture arrived just in time for the students to take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (T.A.A.S.), the state's minimum basic-skills test required for high school graduation.

Within two months the school would move out of the 10 by 20 office space that served as a classroom — the sixth move that school year — and be shut down by the state, its students set adrift. Improper monitoring, misuse of funds, confusion over the geographic area covered by the charter — the reasons for its failure are unclear. Whatever the reasons, nothing can make up for the interruption in education for the kids involved.

Both Thomas and Lott, dedicated to improving education in their communities, are parts of the growing segment of public school educators who have spearheaded and supported charter schools — with mixed results. Since the first charter school, the City Academy, in St. Paul, Minnesota, opened in 1992, the number of charters has expanded rapidly, exploding by a staggering 48 percent in the past year alone. Currently, there are 1,680 charter schools serving some 350,000 students. They have become America's backyard greenhouses of pedagogical experimentation and innovation, as well as local ideological battlegrounds.

Schools That Make the Rules

Publicly funded but independently run, charter schools are started by groups or individuals in a community — often parents or teachers — and can set their own educational agendas and goals. Although laws vary widely among the 31 states (and the District of Columbia) in which they operate, charter schools are generally granted a degree of autonomy from the local school district and freedom from certain rules and regulations. Deviations from the norm may involve curriculum, physical facilities, and organizational structure — in fact, anything but health and safety — in exchange for greater accountability. Schools that fail to measure up are at risk of a shutdown by state departments of education.

Notwithstanding the risks, more states are passing or expanding charter school laws every year. Proponents point to success stories which suggest that charter schools, with their greater autonomy, site-based management, and increased parental involvement, can effect reduced class size, lower costs, and improved student performance, especially in urban areas. Says Mary Kayne Heinze, the Center for Education Reform's director of media relations: "Charter schools have various ways of reaching children and serving those who have not been served by the traditional schools."

Charter school advocates share a simple desire: to break the rules and make up new and improved ones. Says Theodore Sizer, Ph.D., progressive-education reformer and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, "What I'm for is not so much charter schools but new schools, and charter laws are just one of many kinds of mechanisms for new schools. There's nothing magic about chartering. What's magic is the commitment of various important groups to take some risks on behalf of kids."

These risks may entail throwing out conventional assumptions, such as what a "classroom" is, what a teacher does, and what a lesson should consist of. For example, in the Minnesota New Country School, learning is project-based, which means that students follow their interests and work together in groups for a common purpose, as in the deformed-frogs research. Youngsters consult specialists among the staff and in the community, a practice that extends the learning experience beyond school walls. The MNCS doesn't even look like a school. Students sit at desks arranged in clusters, with a computer in the center of each group, in a large, open, gymnasium-sized space.

The Dangers of Freedom

The recent exponential growth of charter schools is surely spurred in part by mostly anecdotal evidence. But there may be problems — one being accountability.

Charter schools are to be monitored by the state. But, according to the American Federation of Teachers' Joan Buckley, associate director of the Educational Issues Department, "very few states have good oversight provisions or programs in place." That may explain why it took until last spring for the state of Texas to do anything about the Arlington Renaissance Academy's lack of desks, chairs, and heat. With 145 state charter schools, the Texas Education Authority has a staff of four to oversee and monitor them all.

This resulting lack of support has left a bad taste in the mouths of some education reformers. "If this is what a charter school is about, I don't want to have anything to do with it," says Deborah Lott, referring to the defunct Arlington Renaissance Academy.

Cases like Arlington's are relatively rare, however. According to the Center for Education Reform, charter schools have a 2 percent failure rate. The AFT's Buckley puts the figure at 4 percent. But some teachers and education reformers are wary of charter schools for other reasons. One of their biggest concerns, says Buckley, is the growing number of charters being opened by for-profit companies. An increasing number of states (Michigan, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Arizona, and California) allow this practice.

Buckley asserts that the innovative opportunities — a longer school day, longer school year, teaching Latin and Greek, using the community as a classroom — are among the greatest benefits of charter school laws. "But [for-profit] companies don't have innovative programs; they have cookie-cutter programs, and their schools tend to be larger and have less local control. The books are the same, the worksheets are the same, and each school needs the same equipment and supplies to operate as the other schools in the chain. While charter schools are about doing things differently, companies are about doing things the same way."

Over the past eight years, opponents have claimed that the charter school movement is just one of a number of wedges being driven into public education with the intention of introducing competition while skimming off the best students. In most cases, however, students are admitted to charters by lottery or on a first-come, first-served basis. So while the skimming argument has essentially died for lack of evidence, there is some indication that charters may tend to take students who are less costly to educate. A recent University of Michigan study found that three quarters of the state's charter schools offered no special-education services, and the few that did provided fewer and less costly services. This in turn increases the average costs for public school districts left with the burden of providing the more expensive programs.

More Power to the Teachers

As many charter schools across the country have redefined what education means for students, frequently these institutions have also given teachers greater control. Schools such as MNCS empower teachers by having them form a site-based council, divvying up administrative jobs. There is no principal or supervisor.

Similarly, the Soaring Heights Charter School, in Jersey City, New Jersey, was created by a group of teachers who had initially come together in a training session to fight urban teacher burnout. By sharing administrative duties among the faculty, they saved enough money to reduce class size and pay teachers on the local union scale. What's more, Soaring Heights actively recruited students needing special education in its first year. Says Claudia Zuorick, a Soaring Heights communications consultant: "We have great respect for the hard work being done in the local district. We just think we have an advantage because of our autonomy."

The AFT's Buckley acknowledges that there are charters with increased teacher autonomy. But overall, she says, it is rare to find increased professional opportunities for educators in these schools. "In most instances teachers are underpaid and overworked," she says, "and the teacher turnover rate is very high."

While documented indications of overall charter success are spotty, stunning firsthand reports suggest that they fulfill a deep-seated need in an education system that has become too big and too bloated to meet the needs of students and teachers — especially in poor, troubled urban centers.

Such is the story of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, in Los Angeles. Situated in an impoverished and high crime area, Vaughn was a public elementary school before converting to charter status in 1993. Since then tests scores have gone up. Class size has gone down, and the school year has been extended from 163 to 200 days. Further, teacher pay has been raised; and new buildings, including a community library, a museum, a professional center, and a health clinic, have gone up. And the educators did all of it without spending a dime more in taxpayer's money.

Instead they did it with fortitude, creative budgeting, and negotiating, says Vaughn principal Yvonne Chan, and the hard work helped give them a "sense of ownership." She adds: "This is our school. We're going to take a long-range plan and succeed." Having both sides of the issue, Chan says that charter status has made all the difference. "It's not the kids who have changed, it's the adults who have changed. It's a different culture. I've died and gone to heaven."