Yes, publicly-funded charter schools in the U.S. are here to stay. More than 6,400 exist in the U.S. with most located in big cities (there are 100,000 regular schools). Charters enroll over 2.5 million students (over 50 million attend U.S. public schools). No, charter schools will not become the majority anytime soon. But they will be an important albeit small fraction of U.S. schools in 2050.
The “charter wars” over whether they are efforts to “privatize” public schools or whether charters are more effective than regular public schools or whether they are really “public” will continue to be fought by pundits, politicians, and warring factions but they will be skirmishes that won’t even deserve a footnote in the next generation’s doctoral dissertations. For better or worse–I believe better–the political invention of charter schools a quarter-century ago has been one of the legacies left by market-based school reforms, a movement dating back to the early 1980s. Largely located in urban districts, charters have offered hope to highly motivated parents trapped by poverty and circumstance that their children can escape the ravages of imposed economic inequality. The next generation of publicly-funded charters extending into the middle of the 21st century will be better monitored than they are now but, as before, will be largely found in urban districts unless major changes in the socioeconomic structures of the U.S occur to rid cities of residential segregation and severe economic inequalities. Minority parents in 2050 will continue to be stuck and publicly-funded charters will, as they do now, offer a rung to grab climbing the ladder out of poverty .
Why am I so sure about charters being around mid-21th century?
Because the history of public schools in the U.S. has been a gradual stretching of the word “public” when it comes to schooling the young. Few remember or consult the history of U.S. education to note that nearly all schooling in the 18th and early 19th centuries was private. There were a handful, at best, of tax-supported public schools. Sure, the Puritans in New England mandated that communities with at least 50 families had to establish a school funded by property holders. Few were established, however. Those parents who wanted their children to read the bible, compute numbers, and write had to pay tuition to send their children to private academies and “dame” schools. For the urban poor in early 19th century cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, philanthropists organized “charity” schools where young children could learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. Still, most children went unschooled.
The mid-19th century “common school” movement established tax-supported public schools for children (none, however, for slaves or free “colored” of those times) across the Northeast and Midwest. Taxes went to school the young, both male and female, to make them literate and law-abiding adults who would contribute to their communities and the nation. Reformers of that generation saw public schools as the “balance wheel of the social machinery” and making democratic citizens. They were political institutions.
After the Civil War, the idea of tuition-free public schools was stretched again to include ex-slaves. The establishment of tax-supported public schools, legally segregated by skin color, lasted until the late-20th century. Then the idea of “public” stretched to include other minority children and youth previously relegated to segregated schools or who went unschooled such as children and youth with disabilities.
Private schools–those earlier academies–run by religious and non-religious groups, of course, continued over two centuries expanding and contracting as time passed. The success of tax-supported public schools can be seen in the 90 percent of U.S. children attending those schools (2011). But as any reader knows, the quality of those public schools vary tremendously, especially across and within urban, suburban, exurban, and rural districts.
Toward the end of the 20th century, another stretching of the meaning of “public” occurred, again, aimed at mostly under-served urban minority children in the nation. Alternative schools (magnets, “open” and “free” schools proliferated from desegregation and challenges to the K-12 structures), began in the 1960s and spread. An in the early 1990s, publicly-funded chartered schools opened in Minnesota, one of the first being City Academy High School in St. Paul where three teachers welcomed 25 high school dropouts. Since then more charter schools have spread across the country, mostly in cities. Charters are now 6 percent of all public schools (24 percent of the nation’s schools are private).
Looking through the telescope rather than the microscope permits me to take the long view when it comes to publicly-funded charter schools. I see 2015 as part of another stretching of the term public to include charter schools. And that is why I believe charter schools are here to stay.