CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Walk into a Colorado charter school and you might see a student painting a picture while a few classmates explore a concept using the Socratic method.
Mark Hyatt, executive director of the Charter School Institute of Colorado, described a Montessori charter school as very "child-centric," where students learn at their own pace. Teachers also integrate activities like hiking or mountain biking into the lessons.
Hyatt describes a charter school as a place with its own niche that offers something different from a traditional public school.
As West Virginia lawmakers prepare to consider several education issues, including charter schools, advocates on both sides of the issue are making their points.
Research shows that students at some U.S. charter schools outperform traditional public schoolchildren, but other charters fail their students. Still, some advocates say West Virginia has 20 years worth of research allowing state lawmakers to craft a law that lets them monitor and sustain high-performing charter schools.
Hyatt heads up the oldest charter-authorizing agency of its kind in the country, according to Randy DeHoff, a member of the Colorado Board of Education. DeHoff advised West Virginia lawmakers, education officials and others who researched the issue earlier this year.
The charter advocate can be "the entrepreneur, the risk taker that benefits disfranchised students" but also ends up helping traditional kindergarten through 12th-grade students as well, Hyatt said.
"What we're slowly doing is changing the industry [of] K-12 education," Hyatt said. "We're competing with our local districts only to make them better.
"All I'm trying to do is provide options and change for good in our state."
A charter school's purpose is, not surprisingly, contained in its charter, says Howard O'Cull, who led the West Virginia group investigating charter schools this year. The US<co> Charter Schools website describes the charter as a "performance contract detailing the school's mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success."
West Virginia is one of 10 states without a charter school law.
How some charters work
Charter schools receive public funding, but usually have more independence than traditional public schools.
Often, parents or nonprofit agencies who want a charter school petition a sponsor -- usually a state or local school board, a state university or an independent agency like the Charter School Institute in Colorado, DeHoff said.
The organizers list in the charter which state rules they're asking to be waived, said O'Cull.
Charters usually must be renewed every three to five years, according to US Charter Schools.
"The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability," according to the group's website. "They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them."
In Colorado, each charter school must have a board of directors, which might consist of parents, a principal, teachers, former educators or local business owners, Hyatt said.
"You've got to have full disclosure on the board," he said. One charter school in Colorado Springs has been in trouble for nepotism on their board, he said.
"You have to have some sort of oversight and you can't have conflicts of interest," he said.
In Colorado, authorizers and each school's board of directors also must assure that schools follow special education laws and Title I laws and provide a safe learning environment.
Colorado's Charter School Institute, which Hyatt runs and DeHoff used to run, operates like its own school district, but has an independent board and is not really a part of the state Department of Education, DeHoff said.
In Colorado, either the local school district or the institute needs to approve a new charter, but not both, he said.
Local school districts are required to offer their vacant facilities to a charter school if asked. However, if the institute approves a charter, the school may have more independence, DeHoff said.
Charter schools often receive and control money for transportation, food and other services -- which a county school board would control for public schools.
Most charter schools in Colorado don't provide buses for students, he said. Facility costs also can eat up a big chunk of a school's budget -- often between 15 and 20 percent, DeHoff said.
Each Colorado charter school usually receives 95 percent of the dollars allotted for the school, while up to 5 percent goes to the authorizing agency for administrative costs.
Last year, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released a study that found charter schools to have very different effects in different states.
Charter school students in five places -- Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and the cities of Chicago and Denver -- learned significantly more than they might have in traditional public school, according to the report.
But students in six states -- Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas -- saw less growth than their peers in public schools, according to the study. And California, Georgia, North Carolina and the District of Columbia had mixed results.
CREDO researchers created "virtual twins" for charter school students in an effort to gauge whether those students fared better than they would have at a traditional public school.
"They probably got an answer that's reasonably close to the right answer," said Sean Reardon, an associate professor of education at Stanford.
Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford, criticized her colleagues at CREDO for the study. She then led her own study of almost all charter schools in New York City, and found that students who attended charter schools for several years were more likely to close achievement gaps in math and English, to earn a diploma by age 20 and score higher on exams than public school students.
Reardon credited Hoxby and her fellow researchers for relying on random lotteries when they compared charter students with public school students.
Because all the New York City students in the study had an equal chance to attend a charter school, researchers had the opportunity to obtain highly credible "estimates of the effect of attending a charter school rather than a traditional public school," Reardon wrote.
However, he argued that the study had some statistical flaws, and the results appeared to overstate the benefits of attending a charter school.
More recently, Mathematica Policy Research, a nonprofit research firm based in Princeton, N.J., conducted a study of charter schools for middle school students.
They compared the performance of students in 15 states who were admitted to charter schools through random lotteries with students who applied to the same schools but were not admitted.
On average, the charter middle schools were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement in reading and math or student behavior. But individual charter schools diverged widely as to how they impacted students.