Since 1991 when Minnesota became the first state to charter new schools free of most education regulations, 44 states and the District of Columbia have authorized 7700 charter schools run by non-profit and for-profit organizations. As of 2020, charters housed over three million students or just over seven percent of the U.S. public school enrollment. [i]
Charter schools, an innovation launched over three decades ago has become a stable part of the decentralized U.S. system of schooling. Such schools are an example of both reforming and conserving, both change and constancy in American education, or what I and others have called “dynamic conservatism.”
These charters are public schools governed by independent boards of parents, teachers, community members, entrepreneurs, etc. Charters receive state funds for each student equal to what a regular public school next door would receive. They are open to all students in a district and students are usually chosen by lottery. 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.
The theory behind charter schools that drove nearly all states to establish these autonomous public schools unbeholden to district authorities (but accountable to their board of directors or trustees was that such schools would be free to innovate in how they would organize a school, create a curriculum, and deliver lessons to children and youth. And that freedom to innovate would lead to different ways of schooling the young that would light the path for regular public schools to alter their traditional ways of organizing schools, disseminating curriculum, and delivering classroom lessons. That’s the theory.
Between the theory and realities that were charter schools across the nation, succeeding decades saw the unfolding of a range of charters that encompassed the very best to the very worst of schools with most ending up in the middle, similar to regular public schools in organization, curriculum, and teaching practice.
From zero to seven percent of total U.S. students in charter schools in 30 years doesn’t sound like a cat video going viral on social media 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 were touted to create innovative curriculum, instruction, and organization. They would compete with traditional public schools for students. From that innovation and competition, state legislators expected across-the-board improvement in all public schools. That was the hope.
Publicly funded charter schools have found a special niche within urban districts. Two-thirds of charter school students are minority (across the country the percentage is half); 58 percent of all charters are located in cities; the rest are in suburban and rural districts–many of which are poor.[ii]
Currently, urban districts with high percentages of students attending charter schools are New Orleans (99.6), San Antonio (50.2), Gary, Indiana (50.1), Kansas City, Missouri (46.1), and Washington, D.C. (43.1). Charters expanded parental choice beyond magnet schools, alternative schools, and districts with portfolios of options. Charters have become as familiar as the morning Pledge of Allegiance in the nation’s urban classrooms.[iii]
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.[iv]
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 supported the expansion of charter management organizations and independent 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 in a reluctance to dump those charters that were (and are) fiscally and academically failing.[v]
Warring research studies from camps promoting and opposing charters have unceasingly argued for the past three decades 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 close down; some charters are for-profit such as cyber schools but most are not. Lumping them altogether to answer a generic question–which form of governing public schools is better academically?—is not only goofy but unanswerable. What is clear, however, after 30 years is a lack of systemic oversight and accountability of charters for poor fiscal and academic performance in various states.[vi]
[i] National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Jamison White & Matt Hieronimus
“How Many Charter Schools and Students Are There?” February 09, 2022 ;Arianna Prothero, “At 25th Anniversary Mark, Author of First Charter School Law Reflects on Movement,” Education Week, June 3, 2016.
[ii]White and Hieronimus, Tables 3.3 and 3.4.
[iii] Ibid. Table 3.5
[iv]Wikipedia, “Charter Management Organizations,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_management_organization
[v] Matt Barnum, “Where Do the Nation’s Big Charter Boosters Send Their Cash? More and More To Charter Networks,” Chalkbeat, November 13, 2017.
[vi] Gary Miron, “Descriptions and Brief History of Charter Schools,” in Nina Buchanan and Robert Fox, The Wiley Handbook of School Choice (New York: John Wiley,2017), pp. 224-251.