School & District Management

Charter School Openings Lowest in Six Years

By Darcia Harris Bowman — February 18, 2004 4 min read
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This school year saw the lowest number of new charter schools since 1997, with 309 opening compared with a high of 466 four years ago, figures from the Washington-based Center for Education Reform show.

“Charter School Law Across the States” is available from the Center for Education Reform. See also a section offering information and a “ranking” of each state’s charter laws.(Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Despite the dip, down from 395 openings in the 2002-03 school year, supporters of the independent public schools who gathered in the nation’s capital last week for the release of an annual CER report appeared unconcerned. They pointed out that the number of charter schools nationwide still grew by 10 percent in spite of opponents’ efforts to curb the movement’s growth.

“It’s just a circumstantial breath—this will not slow down,” said Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies and one of the speakers at a Feb. 11 press conference held here to unveil the center’s annual scorecard of state charter school laws.

James Merriman, the president of the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute, agreed. “Certainly, after states first passed laws authorizing charter schools, there was a flood of pent-up demand,” he said. “That demand has been satisfied to some extent, but in my state, [New York City Schools] Chancellor Joel Klein is looking to have 50 charter schools open next year, and Buffalo city schools is looking to turn into an all-charter district.”

“I don’t see any evidence of a slowdown,” he added, “but I do see an increase in quality.”

Strong States

Jeanne Allen, the president of the CER, a research and advocacy organization that favors school choice, attributed the drop in charter school openings to lobbying in state legislatures by teachers’ unions, school board associations, and other critics.

In Ohio, for example, a coalition led by the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers has mounted an ongoing campaign opposing charter schools in that state. (“Ohio Charters Targeted in Election Politics,” Sept. 18, 2002.)

Charter Trends

The number of charter schools opening nationwide each year has fluctuated. This school year will see the lowest number of new charters since 1997-98.

2003-04: 309
2002- 03: 395
2001- 02: 420
2000- 01: 395
1999- 2000: 466
1998- 99: 396
1997- 98: 233
SOURCE: Center for Education Reform

A flood of new laws allowing charter schools passed in 1996, Ms. Allen said, “and that led to the large increase in new school openings in 1999-2000. Suddenly people who didn’t want charters woke up and said, ‘Gosh, we’d better go to the legislature and stop this.’ ”

But a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, in Washington, suggested that factors beyond opposition may be contributing to the slowdown in openings. She pointed, for instance, to evidence of mixed student performance and dissatisfaction with for-profit companies that manage many of the nation’s charter schools.

“The hopes and optimism evident at the outset of the charter school movement are still there, but now that we have years of evidence to look at, there’s more caution,” said Celia H. Lose of the AFT.

The main thrust of the new CER report, “Charter School Laws Across the States 2004,” is that “strong” state charter school legislation—that is, laws that offer maximum flexibility in exchange for academic performance and don’t arbitrarily limit the number of such charters allowed—make for successful schools.

This year, the center labeled 26 states as having strong laws, and 15 with weak charter laws.

Making Gains?

“Of the 26 strong laws, 65 percent of those states saw significant gains in the evaluations of test and [federal] No Child Left Behind data over two years,” according to the CER report. “Of the weak laws, only two states demonstrated positive gains.” The report notes, however, that many of the states with weak laws have yet to release “reliable data on charter achievement.”

The states with the most charter schools topped the CER’s list of states with strong laws. Arizona, which has more charter schools than any other state, at 464, ranks first on that list; Florida, with 277 such schools, is rated eighth; and California, with 430 charter schools, ranks 15th.

Minnesota, which in 1992 became the first state to open a charter school and now hosts 88, ranks second. The District of Columbia, whose 39 charter schools enroll 15 percent of the city’s public school students, is third.

The report also touches on research by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, that shows that a disproportionate number of charter schools are not making “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, compared with traditional public schools.

“This is not a surprise,” the CER says in its report. “A majority of the nation’s 2,996 charter schools serve at-risk and disadvantaged populations or children unsatisfied with traditional public schools.” Strong laws that give charter school educators the freedom to meet educational standards as they see fit will make a difference over time in student achievement, Ms. Allen predicted.

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