I believe that the main strength of charter schools is their flexibility in setting a goal or mission for a school and then building up their staff, culture, and practices around it. Many of the things that they do could potentially be done in regular public schools as well but rarely are. It is easier to build this kind of school from the ground up than to try implementing change after change upon a staff and student population that may not be receptive. Also, since charter schools are schools of choice, nobody is forced to stay in them. Schools must be responsive to students' and families' needs if they are going to keep them as clients.
The charter school where I taught was built around the mission of enabling students from disadvantaged communities to get to and through a four-year college. We had five core values (courage, kindness, joy, perseverance, and truth) that were posted in every classroom and woven into lessons in all subjects whenever possible. The whiteboards at the side of every classroom were arranged the same way (date, teacher's name and contact information, agenda of the lesson, daily learning objective, homework, a motivational quote, etc.) to build consistency for kids between classes and grades. We had a schoolwide discipline system that included demerits and detentions for misbehavior as well as rewards for consistently following rules and exemplifying our core values. First thing in the morning, every homeroom teacher checked kids' homework to be sure that it was there, completed, and signed by a parent. A child who came to school missing a homework assignment had to call home to let their family know that they'd be staying after school that day to make it up. Best of all, every teacher in the school was on board with enforcing these systems because we knew what we were getting into when we were hired.
My school was not perfect; it definitely had its issues. The model wouldn't work without dedicated, effective teachers and significant buy-in from the community. That said, I did see the school do wonderful things for many of our students--99 percent of whom were Hispanic and the majority of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Apart from the longer school day, nothing we did was really outside of the scope of what traditional public schools are allowed to do. Our staff just bought into the mission so deeply that we all self-selected into working there and then worked our hearts out to make the mission a reality.
But you are probably looking for more than my anecdotal evidence, and rightly so. I would direct you to two reports from the federal Department of Education, published in 2006 and 2007, that try to determine which practices at top charter schools are responsible for their success. They found that being mission-driven, teaching for mastery and deep understanding, and holding themselves accountable for successes and failures tended to predict success in charter schools at all levels. At the high school level in particular, successful charters also tended to focus on college preparation, provide wraparound support, and value professional learning. You can read the reports here:
for high school and http://www2.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/ch…
They are not scholarly sources, but they are based in research on the practices of those institutions. The most-cited scholarly source, the 2009 CREDO study from Stanford, makes a similar guess about what makes some charters so successful. They say that "charter schools that are organized around a mission to teach the most economically disadvantaged students in particular seem to have developed expertise in serving these communities" (p. 9).
Successful charter schools are notoriously difficult to replicate, so what I like about I-1240 is that it caps the number of schools that can open over the next five years. I also like that it says they will give preference in the application process to schools that target at-risk students. To me, this is consistent with following through on what charter schools can do best: tailoring the structures of the system to meet the needs of the community. I also like that in the case of a conversion charter (turning an existing school into a charter school), the charter cannot be approved unless at least half of the parents or teachers sign off on it. They require community support before moving forward. I also like that 1240 heads off funding disputes by indicating which physical resources and streams of money are available to charters that apply through different authorizers (the local district vs. the state).
I am sort of on the fence about charters as a whole, but I do believe that this is a good initiative to ease Washington into the arena. By including caps, targeting at-risk students, not allowing for contracting with for-profit providers, requiring community support for conversion, and providing financial incentives to work with the local school district, the text of the initiative shows that its drafters have taken the lessons learned elsewhere into account when crafting 1240.