On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ms. Adorador, a counselor and administrator at the Oakland Charter Academy, was not counseling any students. She was alone in her office gripping a cordless phone, trying to transform herself into a tax expert.

Her middle school, which serves 175 mostly Spanish-speaking students, was one of America’s first charter schools. It had a long string of luck finding cheap space in which to hold classes, but last year, that luck ran out. The school’s good fortune began when it opened in 1993, under a $1 per year lease from the local Catholic diocese. That gift, however, was intended only to help the school get started, and was limited to two years. When the lease ran out, in 1995, it came time to move the marine-gray trailers that serve as classrooms. Still under a lucky star, the school landed another sweetheart arrangement: a parcel in an industrial park, heavily subsidized by the local port authority, for only $25,000 per year. Granted, the new home amid the factories and stacks of shipping containers, walking distance from nowhere, had its drawbacks. Indeed, to an outsider, the ramshackle portable school, with no gymnasium, lunchroom, or stage, might have seemed the picture of ghetto deprivation. But as odd as the setting appeared, some parents and teachers enjoyed the isolation, and the trailers seemed to fit right in.

Like all good things, however, the school’s charmed lease on life had to end, and last summer the bank foreclosed on the school’s industrial park landlord. With little cash to spare, the school’s supporters made numerous pleas for a cheap building, or a deal directly with the bank, or at least a lot where they could put their nomadic trailers. The search came to naught, and they finally found a home—too small and far too expensive—ironically in a defunct bank branch near the school’s first site. Now, from a total budget of about $800,000, the school must make $65,000 quarterly payments on a $200,000 renovation debt, plus pay $6,000 in monthly rent. (The rent will climb steadily to $10,000 per month by 2002.) Because California doesn’t provide a dime to charter schools for space, all of that comes out of the same funds that would otherwise pay for books, materials, and teacher salaries. As a result, the school pays its teachers between $2,000 and $7,000 less per year than the surrounding Oakland district, which itself has some of the lowest salaries in the area. Amid a serious statewide teacher shortage, the pay scale is a desperate handicap in recruiting skilled teachers. Likewise, the massive payout for the building has cut funding for books and other essentials nearly to zero.

“We have spent every last nickel on this facility,” Adorador laments. “I think we bought one set of math books [this year]. We have not bought instructional materials.” And now, to add insult to injury, the renovation has increased the value of the building—and with it the school’s property tax bill. But the school is probably eligible for an exemption from the tax, much of which goes, of course, to fund schools. So rather than counseling kids, Adorador is on the phone with an advisor in the Mayor’s office. “I’m trying to figure out how to become a commercial real estate agent and get an exemption,” she grumbles. “What’s typical about it is, charter schools always have staffs that are working outside their expertise.”

Adorador’s situation highlights the gap between the vast expectations policy makers and parents hold for charter schools, and the real struggles these courageous upstarts face in trying to survive. These schools present remarkable opportunities for experimentation in the classroom, and for bringing families into their children’s educational life. But as with all serious, complex problems, the woes of education do not invite quick, cheap fixes. Where charter schools are marketed as a magic wand that rapidly and unfailingly will produce well-educated kids and big-system reform, they are being grossly oversold. Charter schools have the potential to enliven the debate, and perhaps to restore hope for public schooling at a time when faith in that notion is waning. But anyone who sees these vogue, anti-bureaucratic schools as an easy way to fundamentally change American education ought to take a hard look at some of the barriers these schools face.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded, but live outside the constraints of a school district. Except for a handful of basic safety rules, most of the regulations don’t apply. Instead of promising to adhere to a Byzantine state education code and the local school board’s directives, charter schools promise results, in a document called a charter. Yet such schools must abide by the basic tenets that put the “public” in public schools: They cannot inculcate religion, cannot charge tuition, and must accept any child who shows up, space permitting. It’s a notion that appeals across the spectrum, from conservative philanthropists who seek escape from a hidebound bureaucracy to teachers who yearn for the simplicity and warmth of a one-room schoolhouse, or a place to try new ideas. Charter schools are a blank slate for our educational fantasies; they are, as the title of one good primer puts it, “a public school of your own.”

In public discourse, people talk about charter schools the way they do IPO’s for Internet startups: They don’t know much about what they are or how they work, but they like them a lot, and would like to be part of one. In a Public Agenda survey last summer, 81 percent of Americans said they knew very little or nothing about charter schools, and fully 89 percent said they would need to learn more before forming an opinion about them. Yet given a one-sentence explanation, more than two-thirds came out in favor of charter schools, and the majority said they would seriously consider sending their own children there.

In keeping with the Internet comparison, charters are multiplying at a prodigious rate, despite the lack of substantial hard information on their results. The first charter school opened in 1992, and by the end of the year there were two. The next two years added 98 new schools, and the next two years, 332. The growth curve is still steepening, with more than 820 new schools created over the last two years, for a current total around 1,700. Today, a quarter of a million American children in 32 states and the District of Columbia attend a type of school that did not exist a decade ago.

Each of those states has passed separate legislation setting rules for who can grant a charter, how many schools can open, and how much money a charter school receives per student. (Typically, it’s somewhat less than the regular public schools). Those varying conditions have created widely different numbers of schools in each state, from 222 in Arizona and 210 in California to one each in Mississippi and Nevada. A large majority of charter schools are brand-new institutions, but 18 percent are converted from previously existing public schools, and 10 percent from existing private schools. Charters present a vibrant array of approaches and reasons for being, from the need to serve a particular population—frequently “at-risk students”—to an unusual philosophy of education, to a desire for greater parent involvement or discipline. And while charters vary widely in style, a large majority cite the pursuit of an alternative vision as a reason for their founding.

The word “charter” dates to 1292 and the Magna Carta, and attaching it to this new brand of school was a brilliant stroke of nomenclature. The most literal meaning of the word is a document incorporating a university; the term was first used in that sense in 1474, in reference to the creation of Oxford and Cambridge. But its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a written document delivered by the sovereign or legislature granting privileges to, or recognizing the rights of, the people.” And it is that sense that best describes the ambitions of early advocates. The charter notion sprang from the ideas of school and government reformers and supporters of alternative schools. If there was a common theme to their organic coalition, it was that the “monopoly” of local school districts over the creation of public schools should be broken, and that the resulting competition would be good for all. Families could choose among public schools, carrying their public education funds with them. Meanwhile, education by charter meant that if a school did not fulfill its promises, it could be closed—a clear incentive to perform. At its most modest, the philosophy held that the rivalry from charters would push districts to improve in order to hold on to students—and their funding. At its most ambitious, the hope was that a system mired in bureaucracy would never be able to compete effectively with these creative, efficient little startups, and that most or all children would end up in charter schools. Still other educators visualized “boutique” schools that, outside a centrally managed bureaucracy, would serve as laboratories for curricula and techniques, the best of which would find their way back to the system.

In a time of growing calls for change in public education, charter schools have proved a potent idea. True, some have viewed charter schools with suspicion, fearing that they will drain off resources and energy from the system serving most of the kids, and from efforts to reform that system. But policy makers and politicians throughout the country have found charter schools to be a hot ticket. (Charter schools aren’t just for Democrats; George W. Bush, saying he wants “to fan the spark of charter schools into a flame,” has called for an additional 2,000 charter schools and $3 billion in loan guarantees to them. Brother Jeb Bush, the Florida governor, founded a charter in Miami three years ago.) Education reformers who believe that the key to school improvement lies in family and community involvement are naturally drawn to homegrown charter schools. Moreover, as support grows for vouchers—which would allow parents to take public funds to private and religious schools—charter schools have gained cachet as an innovative school choice option that remains entirely public. And quietly, educators who see teachers’ unions as part of the reason for stasis have taken to charters, which usually do not participate in collective bargaining.

Have charter schools fulfilled their promise? In the realm of academic performance, it’s far too early to say; most of the schools now in existence opened in the last two years. Moreover, it would be folly ever to try to draw broad-brush conclusions about a movement characterized by the uniqueness of its members, which range from diversion programs for jail-bound teenagers to Montessori-type preschools. Currently, much of what passes for evaluation are the passionate claims and counterclaims of charter advocates and critics. But there are encouraging stories and trends that demonstrate the power of the charter idea—and they are nearly certain to be used to support driving the charter concept too far, too fast.

First, charter schools, on average, are much smaller than other public schools, with an average enrollment of 137, as compared to 475 in regular schools. That fact alone is worthy of careful attention. There’s evidence that lots of things—from academic achievement to safety—work better when the school is small enough that every adult knows every child. (The rich, it’s often noted, have figured this out: When was the last time you heard of a large expensive private school?) And charter schools have, on average, a better teacher-student ratio than regular public schools. Another encouraging trend: Contrary to early fears, charter schools are enrolling disproportionately high numbers of poor and ethnic minority children (although that’s not true in every state). Nationally, charter schools enrolled the same proportion of students with limited English as did other public schools, although charters enrolled substantially fewer special-education students. Clearly, there’s something parents like about charter schools; 70 percent of the charters now in existence have waiting lists to enroll.

Successful charter schools are getting noticed. Massachusetts newspapers, for instance, have been crammed with accolades for Neighborhood House, a small school in the Dorchester area of Boston. The school is an example of exactly the sort of excellent, creative work that can be done when freedom with education is placed in capable hands with strong community support. Neighborhood House, a warm, comfortable school with 180 elementary-age children, was founded by the local settlement house network, which has long worked to ease the transition of new immigrants. Its mostly black, mostly poor students enjoy classes with 18 children—and two teachers. The school serves as a center for health care, social services, adult education, and after-school activities, and families can take advantage of a parent center, whose coordinator also conducts home visits. The school reports an impressive 97 percent attendance rate and zero expulsions. But it’s not the welcoming air and the wealth of services that have drawn notice—it’s the test scores. On recent statewide exams, the school had the No. 1 fourth-grade score in Massachusetts in English and language arts, and Boston’s highest scores in math and science.

It seems safe to say that Neighborhood House and standouts like it will become part of charter advocates’ arsenal. And rightly so, since it was in part the school’s unusual freedom in budgeting and hiring that made its success possible. But it’s worth noting that while some of the highest scores in Boston belonged to charter schools, some of the very lowest ones did, too. Charter schools have a lot to offer in the hard fight to make education better, especially in the places where it now is most clearly failing. But this fledgling movement faces some very real barriers, and still has an awful lot to figure out.

As highlighted by the Oakland Charter Academy experience, the lack of facilities, and of public funding for buildings, will combine to put sharp limits on the number of new schools. Although some states hold charter schools to more lenient standards than other schools on building safety, few offer much in the way of funding for charter school buildings. (Regular public schools, by contrast, are generally supported by government bond issues.) The result is that even when suitable buildings can be found—often a tall order in the inner city—the charter school must either get the building for free or find a deep-pocketed donor if it hopes to avoid cutting deeply into instructional funds. For the Edison Schools, one of the largest operators of charters in the country, the facilities problem poses the No. 1 challenge. “Finding and financing, that combination is a gigantic barrier,” says Joe Keeney, Edison’s vice president for real estate. Even where parents and school boards are ready to start a school, he says, “we walk away from some deals because we can’t make it work.” Absent the facilities problem, he added, “we would be able to do a lot more and we’d be able to serve a lot more children.” That fact alone should chasten anyone who envisions cities suddenly transformed by a raft of startup charter schools. And even among charter schools now open, one in three reports having an inadequate facility.

Perhaps more important, from an academic standpoint at least, is the fact that a ticket out of a dysfunctional bureaucracy is not the same as a free pass to educational nirvana. Like awkward new hatchlings, many young charter schools are struggling to get on their feet, and students at these nascent schools are not always doing better than their counterparts in the schools they left. In places where education is working most poorly—the inner cities and the poor rural areas—charter schools are demonstrating just how tough it is to create educational excellence. Yes, there are wonderful examples of what can be done with the most careful planning and the most creative, demanding leadership. And yes, many charter schools in tough areas have achieved victories in non-academic areas such as safety. But in journalistic, academic, and other reports from the field, one account after another demonstrates the difficulty of trying to make new curricula and new ways of sharing power work—all in a brand-new school that is figuring out for the first time how to keep track of attendance; instill discipline; feed children; salve their illnesses and wounds; respond to parent complaints; clean, maintain, and secure a building; file for state and federal funds and write grants; translate each memo into a second language; set up computers; balance a budget, and do all those other myriad tasks people don’t think about when they imagine running a school is easy. And remember that unless they win special grants (which fortunately are becoming more plentiful), charter schools have no way to pay their staff for the extensive, crucial planning before the school opens. Without such extra time, educators fall back on what they already know, and a remarkable opportunity for innovation is lost.

Charter schools also face special challenges that they create for themselves—for all the right reasons—over who exactly is in charge. Frequently, especially in the inner city, parents and teachers, fed up with an unresponsive, hierarchical bureaucracy, combine to build their own school. Only in the later stages do they hire a “professional” principal (sometimes termed a “site director” or “administrator”) to “run” the program. But typically the school has its own board, which theoretically holds ultimate power, and the parents and teachers, especially those who founded the school, also expect and get plenty of authority. When tough decisions on money and on hiring and firing have to be made, the question of who’s really in charge can lead to chaos, disillusionment and major turnover in families and staff.

In the relationship between charter schools and the larger system, charter schools also have yet to achieve the goals envisioned for them. First, there are questions about whether charter schools are being held to that favorite educational buzzword, accountability. In kicking off charter schools week, President Clinton said this month that “charter schools must set and meet the highest standards, and they can remain open only as long as they do so.” But in her highly critical and controversial 1998 study on 17 California charters, University of California, Los Angeles researcher Amy Stuart Wells reported that, generally, the schools were not held accountable for achieving the academic goals and standards they set in their charters. In a finding that mirrors criticisms of school districts, Wells reported that financial problems might get a charter school in trouble, but academic shortfalls generally won’t. (So far, only 59 charter schools, or 4 percent of the total, have closed for any reason.) Wells also found that there’s not much of a mechanism right now for innovations from charter schools to make their way to regular public schools, and that the sense that charters have unfair advantages has inhibited regular schools’ willingness to “compete.” It comes as little surprise, then, that researchers have found only about a quarter of school districts changing vigorously in response to the advent of charter schools in their area.

So what is to be done? The challenge places itself squarely before the many politicians who are making charter schools central to their electoral platforms. It seems sometimes that by uttering the two-word mantra, politicians believe they have taken care of their constituents’ most urgent and complex concern. That’s not good enough. Charter schools face hurdles that will limit their growth, preventing them from being a large-scale solution anytime soon. Moreover, as appealing as it may sound, it’s simply false to suggest that cutting educators loose from bureaucracy is all that it will take to create excellent schools. It will require time and attention to make these schools the models of public education success that they ought to be.

Currently, policy makers are exhorting the schools to compete, but sending charters to the race hobbled. How does a school like Oakland Charter compete when it cannot buy books or pay its teachers even the pittance they would make at the school down the street? How does a charter school develop an innovative curriculum and a cohesive structure if the first dollar arrives only after the children do? The federal government has taken good steps toward resolving this quandary, giving away $100 million last year in grants to charter schools; for next year, Clinton is asking for $175 million. That’s a start, but if we are to accept the language of competition, it’s not enough to level the playing field. States ought to make facilities funding available to charter schools as they do to any other school.

But such generosity should not be a gift to charter schools. In return for improved funding, charters should be expected to produce evidence of excellent planning. It should not be the case—as it sometimes seems now in certain states—that only a grossly incompetent charter gets rejected. Making a good school takes deep forethought, creative ideas, and vigorous teachers supported by high-quality, continual training. Charters ought to be held to tough standards, just as children should, with revisions required until the plan is extensive and solid. If giving such discretion to school boards lets anti-charter boards just say no to everyone, governors can create a fair-minded state board of charter appeals. And if a tougher process holds down the total number of new charters, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Lest charter advocates cry foul, they should remember that they are the ones hurt worst by lousy charter schools—worst, that is, after the kids.

Jonathan Schorr is an education writer, former teacher and fellow of the Open Society Institute. He is writing a book on inner-city charter schools. Click here to email him.

Jonathan Schorr is an education writer, former teacher and fellow of the Open Society Institute. He is writing a book on inner-city charter schools. Click here to email him.