Editor's note: This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011.
Although they serve only a tiny 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.
The concept of charter schools clearly has strong appeal. Since the first charter school was founded in Minnesota in 1992, charters have fanned out across the country. According to the Center for Education Reform (2004), an organization that advocates for charters, there were nearly 3,000 charter schools in 37 states and the District of Columbia in January 2004, with particularly high concentrations in some big cities. The schools enroll some 685,000 students. Charters serve the full range of grade levels, often in unique combinations or spans. On the whole, they also appear to enroll a diverse body of students. A 2002 survey report by SRI International, a nonprofit research institute, states that, "on average, more than half the students in charter schools were members of ethnic minority groups, 12 percent received special education services, and 6 percent were English language learners" (Anderson et al., 2002).
A chief reason for charter schools’ appeal is that they are typically smaller than their more traditional counterparts, advocates say. According to the Center for Education Reform (2002), the average charter school enrollment is 242, compared with 539 in traditional public schools. Researchers—and no doubt parents—link small schools with higher achievement, more individualized instruction, greater safety, and increased student involvement.
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). Recently, with the rise of distance learning, a growing number of "cyber" charter schools have even done away with the concept of an actual bricks-and-mortar school building.
Coupled with aggressive academic goals in charter contracts, such "alternative visions of schooling," according to a 2000 U.S. Department of Education report, are a primary motivating force behind the growth of charter schools.
If charters’ independence is central to 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 charters accountable, leaving some students to languish in low-performing schools.
Likewise, 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 have begun to re-examine their charter systems with the aim of giving the schools greater oversight. At the same time, many charter supporters remain leery of increased regulation.
Outside of such managerial concerns, some critics have also charged that, on a school-by-school basis, charters are more racially segregated than traditional public schools, thus denying students the educational "benefits of racial and ethnic diversity" (Civil Rights Project, 2003). 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, 2003).
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 recent 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.