Updated May 25, 2011
Although they serve only a fraction of the nation’s public school students, charter schools have seized a prominent role in education today. They are at the center of a growing movement to challenge traditional notions of what public education means.
Charter schools are by definition independent public schools. Although funded with taxpayer dollars, they operate free from many of the laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools. In exchange for that freedom, they are bound to the terms of a contract, or "charter," that lays out a school’s mission, academic goals, and accountability procedures. State laws set the parameters for charter contracts, which are overseen by a designated charter school authorizer—often the local school district or related agency.
With their relative autonomy, charter schools are seen as a way to provide greater educational choice and innovation within the public school system. Their founders are often teachers, parents, or activists who feel restricted by traditional public schools. In addition, many charters are run by for-profit companies, forming a key component of the privatization movement in education.
Since the first charter school was founded in 1992, shortly after Minnesota approved the first charter-school law, charters have fanned out across the country. According to the Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for charters, there were over 5,000 charter schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia by January 2010, and they enrolled more than 1.5 million students. Charters serve the full range of grade levels, often in unusual combinations or spans.
One appeal of charter schools is that they are typically smaller than their more traditional counterparts, advocates say. The average charter school enrollment is 372, compared with about 478 in all public schools, according to the Center for Education Reform. Researchers have linked small schools with higher achievement, more individualized instruction, greater safety, and increased student involvement.
With their relative autonomy, charter schools are also seen as a way to provide greater educational choice and innovation within the public school system. Another attraction is charters’ often specialized and ambitious educational programs. Charters frequently take alternative curricular approaches (e.g., direct instruction or Core Knowledge), emphasize particular fields of study (e.g., the arts or technology), or serve special populations of students (e.g., special education or at-risk students). With the rise of distance learning, a growing number of "cyber" charter schools have also done away with the concept of a bricks-and-mortar school building.
Coupled with aggressive academic goals in charter contracts, such alternative visions of schooling are a motivating force behind the growth of charter schools, the U.S. Department of Education has reported. That growth has been particularly strong in cities. According to the department's “Condition of Education 2011” report, more than 55 percent of public charter schools were in urban settings.
If charter schools’ independence is part of their appeal, however, it is also a source of concern. Though charters must spell out performance goals in their contracts, some observers question how well academics and student achievement in charters are monitored.
A high-profile report from the American Federation of Teachers (2002), for example, argued that many charter school authorizers have failed to hold the administrators and teachers accountable, leaving some students to languish in low-performing schools. A 2011 study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education noted that charter schools’ governing boards often received minimal training
Some observers say that charters, by virtue of their autonomy, can be vulnerable to financial problems and mismanagement. Indeed, the fiscal arrangements of charters can be inherently problematic, in part because, in many states, charters’ access to facilities and start-up funds is limited.
Increasingly, such issues are coming to the attention of state leaders. After a series of well-publicized charter closures and compliance problems, some states began re-examining their charter systems with the aim of giving the schools greater oversight. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) now recommends best practices for authorizers that evaluate and monitor charter schools.
Outside of managerial concerns, some critics have charged that, on a school-by-school basis, charters are more racially segregated than traditional public schools, thus denying students the educational “benefits associated with attending diverse schools” (Civil Rights Project, 2010). Charter supporters have responded that some charters have high concentrations of minority students because demand for schooling alternatives is highest among such students, whom they say are often poorly served by the traditional public school systems (Center for Education Reform, 2008).
A 2010 study by researchers at University of Colorado-Boulder and Western Michigan University found that most charter schools were “divided into either very segregative high-income schools or very segregative low-income schools” compared to their sending districts, and that the pattern had changed little between 2000-01 and 2006-07. They also tended to enroll a lower proportion of special education students and English-language learners. (Miron, Urschel, Mathis, 2010)
Other concerns about charter schools mirror those surrounding their private school choice counterpart—school vouchers. Skeptics worry that charters unfairly divert resources and policy attention from regular public schools. Other observers counter that charters improve existing school systems through choice and competition (Ericson and Silverman, 2001).
Meanwhile, the question of whether charters or traditional public schools do a better job of educating students is still open to debate. The research is highly mixed—in part due the complexities of comparison and wide performance differences among charters.
A case in point: One study by Western Michigan University’s Evaluation Center found that charter schools in Michigan posted significantly lower scores—and less-consistent gains—on state standardized tests than their host districts (Miron and Horn, 2000). Yet, in a later evaluation of charters in Pennsylvania, the center found that "student achievement appears to be a source of modest strength" for the schools, with some making steady test-score gains. That study points to best-practices evaluation and stronger accountability as ways to expand charter schools’ gains (Miron et al., 2002).
Taken together, other studies paint an equally varied portrait. Studies by the Goldwater Institute and California State University-Los Angeles found that students in charter schools show higher growth in achievement than their counterparts in traditional public schools (Solmon et al., 2004; Slovacek et al., 2001) A major state-commissioned study by the RAND corp. (2003), meanwhile, concluded that charters in California were making solid improvements in student achievement over time and generally keeping pace with other public schools on tests scores after adjustment to reflect students’ demographic backgrounds.
By contrast, however, a 2003 study of charters schools in Ohio found them falling short of traditional public schools on the majority of comparable performance measures, concluding that charter schools "were doing no better than low-performing traditional public schools with similar demographic characteristics" (Legislative Office of Education Oversight). Likewise, a 2002, study of North Carolina charter schools by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy concluded that charters schools were lagging behind traditional public schools in achievement growth and had not proven themselves to be any "better at serving at-risk students."
Still, that report allows that there is significant variation among charters: "Some schools have delivered on the charter school promise, and some clearly have not," the researchers found. Some charter proponents would argue that such individual examples of achievement may in themselves go a long way toward validating the charter experiment, representing successful new models of schooling that states and parents can build on.
More recent studies are also split. A 2010 study by Mathematica Policy Research, of Princeton, N.J., found students’ gains in mathematics after three years in a charter school run by the Knowledge Is Power Program , or KIPP, are large enough in about half of the 22 schools studies to significantly narrow race- and income-based achievement gaps among students. Another 2010 study, commissioned by the federal government and also conducted by Mathematica, found that students who won lotteries to attend 36 charter middle schools across the country performed, on average, no better in mathematics and reading than their peers who lost out in the random admissions process and enrolled in nearby regular public schools.