Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 59: Charter Colleges Offer Benefits, Professors Contend

Charter Colleges Offer Benefits, Professors Contend

Converting traditional public colleges and universities to charter schools could pay off financially and spark innovation, according to a recent paper by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute.

The paper, Charter Colleges: Balancing Freedom and Accountability, applies the charter school idea to public higher education institutions. It argues that deregulation of individual public colleges or universities, coupled with a charter or agreement with the state, would enable colleges and universities “to operate more efficiently, to produce higher quality educational results, and to achieve other socially desirable goals.”

“Charter colleges make sense because they capitalize on the profound desire within academic culture for more autonomy,” write authors Robert O. Berdahl of the University of Maryland and Terrence J. MacTaggart. “In return for greater independence, the state receives more accountability for results.”

Charter colleges, the authors explain, are fundamentally public institutions with substantial authority to manage their own affairs. They are normally not new institutions, but are existing academic entities that receive greater freedom to operate their own administrative affairs (for example, the authority to contract for dining services, to finance and oversee capital needs, to set salaries and titles for employees, and to set tuition rates). The best-known example of a charter college is St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Several states, including Michigan and New Jersey, run relatively independent public colleges and universities.

The paper has led to other calls for charter colleges. “The time is long overdue for governors, legislators, state higher-education commissions, trustees, and other to consider charter schools as models for rekindling innovation at our colleges and universities,” write Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars and Michael K. Block, professor of law and economics at the University of Arizona, in a recent editorial to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “If we encouraged rival programs to compete freely for students and resources through the creation or charter colleges, we would go a long way toward solving our problems.” The Pioneer paper can be viewed at www.pioneerinstitute.org.

Community Colleges Request Funds for Expansion

The State Board of Community Colleges last week approved a $96.3 million budget request for the 2000 legislative session that includes new spending for summer term instruction. The last session of the General Assembly appropriated $77.8 million to community colleges for 1999-00 and $105.8 million for 2000-01.

The requested funds would be used for expansion in several areas, including $7.2 million for summer term funding, $21.7 million for annual enrollment growth, $28.9 million for instruction, $14.7 million for occupational continuing education, $4.5 million for libraries, $16.5 million for distance learning and off-campus centers, $2.5 million for Small Business Centers and the Center for Applied Textile Technology, and $1.2 million to make up for lost enrollment at eastern community colleges hit by Hurricane Floyd. Funds could be shifted from these areas for faculty salary increases.

Increasing summer term funding has long been a goal of the state board. Community College System President H. Martin Lancaster said on Friday and at the board’s February meeting that more summer term funding would benefit adult learners, enabling them “to complete a certificate, diploma or associate degree program or to obtain the specialized skills necessary to re-enter the workforce more quickly.”