Charter schools are here to stay. Since 1991 when Minnesota became the first state to charter new schools free of most state education regulations, 43 states and the District of Columbia have now authorized 6400 charter schools run by non-profit and for-profit organizations. As of 2014 charters house nearly three million students or about six percent of the U.S. public school enrollment. These charters are public schools governed by separate boards of parents, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. Charters receive state funds for each student enrolled equivalent to state funds for a regular public school next door. These new and largely autonomous organizations are accountable to their boards (not the elected school board of the district in which they are located) to fulfill the aims stipulated in the charter they received.
From zero to six percent of total U.S. students in charter schools in 25 years doesn’t sound like a cat video going viral but in institutional terms it is a solid sign that charter schools have become part of daily scene in U.S. public schools and are here to stay. Released from most state regulations and unionized teachers, charter schools have been expected to create innovative curriculum, instruction, and organization and compete with traditional public schools for students. From that innovation and competition, state legislators expected across-the-board improvement in all public schools.
Publicly-funded charter schools have found a special niche among urban districts. Two-thirds of charter school students are minority (across the country the percentage is half); 56 percent of all charters are located in cities; the rest are in rural and small town districts–many of which are poor with only a tiny percentage found in affluent suburbs (see here and here).
Currently, in New Orleans, Detroit, and the District of Columbia charter schools are a majority (or near majority) of their public schools from which parents choose (14 districts have at least 30 percent of their enrollment in charter schools). As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), expanded parental choice that now includes magnet schools, alternative schools, districts with portfolios of options, and yes, charter schools will become as familiar as the morning Pledge of Allegiance in the nation’s classrooms.
Expanded parental choice through vouchers and charters (the former has existed since the 1970s but is largely absent from most school districts while the latter has slowly and steadily grown over the past quarter-century) has become one of the planks in a reform platform to bring innovation and improvement to what critics call a moribund and failed traditional system of schooling. Major foundations such as Walton, Gates, Broad, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund have contributed hundreds of millions to promote charter schools and organizations that manage clusters of schools–Charter Management Organizations or CMOs which are not-for-profit and Educational Management Organizations or EMOs that are for-profit (see here). Donors see charters as a way of ridding the nation but especially big city schools of an obsolete model of schooling that fails to prepare U.S. children and youth for either college or an ever-changing workplace. Foundation officials, many urban parent groups, and civic and business leaders support the expansion of charters. Opponents have been teacher unions, groups of parents railing at loss of funds for regular public schools, and other groups who see a lack of accountability to dump those charters who are fiscally and academically failing (here and here).
Warring research studies from camps promoting and opposing charters have unceasingly argued for the past quarter-century whether charters are academically outperforming traditional public schools. It has become a trivial question because there is so such diversity among charter schools. Some charters (e.g., KIPP and Summit Schools) send nearly all graduates to college ; others are close to closing their doors or have been shut down ; some charters are for-profit such as cyber schools, and dozens of other models. Lumping them altogether to answer a generic question: which form of public schools is better academically?—is not only goofy but unanswerable. What is clear, however, after 25 years is a lack of systemic oversight and accountability of charters for poor fiscal and academic performance in various states (see here).
What is also clear is that the promised autonomy to become innovative and competitive with other public schools, the promise of the original mandate for charters, has yet to appear in charter schools and classrooms (see here and here).
These charter school wars will ease over time. More CMOs will regulate their schools. More state charter laws will increase oversight of school performance. More state caps on the number of charters that can be authorized will disappear. Charters will become a familiar dot in the U.S. educational landscape. Part 2 explains why charters will stick as a reform.