Reports the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute: ``Charter schools may be the most vibrant force in American education today. They are also a subversive influence with the potential to do great harm to the status quo and great good to children.''
Hudson quickly rebuts opponents' charge that charters are elitist enclaves that simply siphon top students from regular public schools.
The University of Minnesota's Joe Nathan, in his just released book, Charter Schools (Jossey-Bass), reports that many charter schools are organized to serve students who were below-average performers or abject failures at their prior schools.
A prime example is the four-year old City Academy in St. Paul, which only accepts dropouts from elsewhere-many students explaining ``I didn't think anyone cared'' or ``I was too far behind.'' Most are low-income and minority youth.
But the City Academy has created an atmosphere of respect and high expectations. It has a waiting list of applicants. It easily won rechartering by local authorities last year, based on excellence in performance.
Charter schools, Hudson reports, are drawing talented, unconventional teachers. It found parents and students are attracted by charter schools' atmosphere of rigorous academic expectations, safety, committed teachers and ``family-like'' feeling.
Across America, that story is being repeated. Nathan cites pioneers like Rexford Brown, who founded and runs PS1, an award-winning Denver inner-city charter school.
Or Richard Farias, a community center leader and advocate of Hispanic kids in Houston, who in fact has local teacher union support in his bid to open a charter school.
Yet 375 charter schools nationwide are a drop in the bucket in contrast to the need for lively new schools with a capacity to gain kids' attention and loyalty.
Nathan cites cases from over a dozen states, spread from Massachusetts to California, Michigan to Nevada, in which unions or school boards have exerted political muscle to prevent charter schools altogether, put a strict limit on how many can be created, or restrict sponsorship to local boards.
In Michigan and Minnesota, he reports, there's been outright union intimidation of colleges trying to sponsor charter schools.
Increasingly, notes charter school expert Ted Kolderie of St. Paul, the education establishment sees the public demand for charters can't be denied altogether.
But to hold it back, school boards and unions demand ``weak'' charter measures that forbid ``alternative sponsors that would create real dynamics'' of change.
The only way to move forward, says Kolderie: Revoke school boards' ``exclusive franchise'' and ``remove from the districts their ability to take their students for granted.'' That means letting another public body - a city, a county, a state education department, for example - grant charters.
Kolderie found the states with the strongest charter schools - California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas - allow non-school board sponsorship (or fairly easy appeals if a school board says ``no''). Indeed, they account for 350 charter schools right now.
By contrast, in the states where there's no appeal if a local school board refuses - Arkansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, for example - scarcely any charters have been approved.
Unless state law breaks the prevailing monopoly pattern, potential charter sponsors - groups with innovative ideas to add quality and excitement to youngsters' school experience - have to go to the very school board they're suggesting isn't doing a good enough job.
``Imagine,'' says Nathan, ``people who want to open a new restaurant, gas station or hardware store having to get permission to open the new business from their competitors. It would be tough, right?''
As if that weren't hard enough, unions are insisting that charter schools hire only certified teachers, and maintain collective bargaining.
That excludes, unfortunately, not just incompetents but also brilliant professionals who might spend some years in a classroom. And it stops a charter school from tying the evaluation and pay of teachers to student achievement, a measure unions traditionally oppose.
Most charter schools are not for profit, receiving equivalent state funds per pupil for the students they recruit.
At their best, they emulate the vigorous spirit of successful professional firms, from law to accounting to landscape architecture.
That means a cadre of people with enthusiasm for the challenge, dependence on each other for success, and a passion for staying ahead.
That's what we owe our children.
Neal R. Peirce writes on urban issues.