Twenty-five years ago this month, tucked in a voluminous education funding bill headed to the Minnesota governor’s desk, was a quirky and contentious idea to allow teachers and parents to create a new kind of public school—chartered schools.
With a stroke of his pen, then-Gov. Arne Carlson signed into existence a movement that has grown over the last quarter-century into a national juggernaut: a charter school sector with thousands of schools, millions of students, a cadre of deep-pocketed benefactors, dozens of advocacy groups, and sophisticated networks of schools that in some cases dwarf the nation’s average-size school district.
Although charter school students only make up about 5 percent of the 50 million K-12 public school students in the country, charters have posed the only credible competition to the traditional system of public schooling. While the growth of charters has mostly been in large urban districts, in 14 of those cities, such as San Antonio, Detroit, and Philadelphia, charters now enroll at least 30 percent of children in public schools.
But as charters have expanded their reach, some observers inside and outside the sector contend they have wandered far from their original purpose: to be schools of innovation and serve as a research and development sector for traditional K-12 schools. And among one of the most searing criticisms of the charter sector is that the schools are accelerating the resegregation of American public education. In many ways, Minnesota still embodies some of the early ideas, while cities such as Los Angeles represent what the charter movement has become: an engine powered by muscular foundations for raising the prospects of low-income African-American and Latino students.
Almost every inch of the walls in Avalon School in St. Paul, Minn., is covered in art. And with several pieces of student-made furniture, the school feels a bit like an antique store. A large, wooden armoire is painted with Avalon’s teachers reimagined as animé characters riding a Chinese dragon.
In one classroom, students mingle around desks strewn with laptops, books, earbuds, snacks, and the remnants of various projects. This is not a break between classes—it is class. Avalon is built around project-based learning, and students spend most of their time working individually or in small groups on projects that relate back to core subjects.
“I started with doing a cumulative history of computing, which was really a journey of self-discovery,” explained senior Campbell Jaap, who is wearing seafoam green skinny jeans and a matching sweatshirt, as he clicks around on a computer he built.
Two teachers sit at large desks at the head of the classroom, ready to assist students as they need help. The teachers represent another way that Avalon departs from the traditional school mold—they run the place. There is no principal, no superintendent. All decisions, from staffing and curriculum to budget and schedules, are made collectively by the teachers.
Avalon, which opened in 2000, is a living example of the early visions of charter schools—an idea that was conceived in part by the late Albert Shanker, then the president of the American Federation of Teachers, as a means for teachers to create their own experimental schools under the district umbrella.
St. Paul, Minn. Mission: “Prepares students for college and life in a strong, nurturing community that inspires active learning, engaged citizenship, and hope for the future.” Student Stats:
29% Qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
“What I saw chartering as—it’s become so complicated—it’s chartering. It’s a verb,” said Ember Reichgott Junge, a former Democratic Minnesota lawmaker who authored the first charter school legislation. “It’s permission for teachers and parents to provide different learning opportunities. It’s permission for someone other than the school district to do that. It’s not a school.”
Although Reichgott Junge was inspired by Shanker’s ideas, she ultimately proposed that charter schools should be unbound from districts and union contracts—setting up a rift that still exists.
But motivations for passing charter laws fractured as the concept spread to other states.
Some lawmakers latched onto charters as a way to break up school districts’ dominance and inject what they believed was market-style competition into public education. Others were drawn to the idea because it was potentially a more politically palatable way to give low-income families school choices without using private school tuition vouchers, which often funnel public money to religious schools.
Co-Founder and Senior Associate at Education Evolving, helped craft the first charter law
Ember Reichgott Junge, Former Minnesota Democratic State Senator, author of the first charter law
Founder and Senior Fellow at Center for School Change, helped write the first charter law
“There are different concepts even within the charter, whatever you’d say—family, movement, sector—about what its purpose is and what its strategy ought to be,” said Ted Kolderie, who has worked in Minnesota education policy for decades and helped write Minnesota’s charter law. “The strategy that developed was to show … that chartering could do what the district sector couldn’t do. That is to create schools for educationally needy children [become] proficient in English and math.”
Today, Minnesota’s charter sector is still somewhat of an anomaly, even as 43 states and the District of Columbia now allow charter schools. It’s the only state where a local teachers’ union serves as an authorizer—the state-approved groups that grant charters, allowing the schools to open. Its charter schools also have a deeper reach into suburban and rural areas, rather than being concentrated in cities.
And it is mostly devoid of the large, multistate charter school chains that oversee around 40 percent of charter schools nationally. Out of Minnesota’s nearly 160 charter schools, only four schools are run by out-of-state management groups—two by for-profit education management organizations, and two by nonprofit charter management organizations.
“It’s ‘chartering.’ It’s a verb. ... It’s permission for teachers and parents to provide different learning opportunities.” —EMBER REICHGOTT JUNGE, Author of Minnesota charter law
Although the majority of charter schools nationally remain independent from networks, nonprofit charter management organizations—think KIPP—have been eating into that share. And the number of CMO-run schools surpassed the number of for-profit counterparts in the 2008-09 school year, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Nationally, CMOs account for 22 percent of all charters that have opened over the last five years.
While differences between the types of charter school operators may seem insignificant, the growth of CMOs—propelled by billions of dollars from the federal government and a cadre of wealthy and highly involved philanthropists—has altered the face of the charter sector.
Many CMO-run charter schools build their missions around educating black and Hispanic students living in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, in prep school-like environments with stringent codes of conduct and a laser focus on college acceptance.
“I think that sort of changed the flavor of charters,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who studies education philanthropy. “It gave them more of this kind of branding element, the whole rise of ‘no excuses’ and those particular CMOs. ... That was very much facilitated by philanthropy.”
The hands-on approach that philanthropists have taken in propagating the CMO model marks a shift in education giving, say experts who have studied this evolution. Earlier forays from foundations such as Annenberg and Ford mostly stayed out of the way of their beneficiaries.
In today’s era, living donors from the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation have taken a more strategic approach to their giving, pouring their money into research, advocacy, and models that could grow or “scale up” quickly. (The Walton, Gates, and Broad foundations provide support for coverage in Education Week.)
From a grant making standpoint, charter management organizations are a solid bet for philanthropists and the federal government because they can invest in growing an organization with a proven track record. But there’s a flip side.
“What it’s meant, of course, is that the schools that could grow were the schools that fit the priority of the funders—which mostly meant creating seats for low-income black and Latino kids in city centers,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “You’ve seen a.”
In a renovated sock factory situated in an industrial park south of downtown Los Angeles, the Alliance Collins Family College Ready High School enrolls 600 students. Airplanes rumble overhead, approaching the runways at LAX. The distant downtown skyline is blurred by smog. Inside the school, which is part of the city’s Alliance network, dozens of college pennants—a common decor choice for many charter networks—hang in the front office and cafeteria.
Past a door decorated to promote a college study abroad program in Costa Rica, a teacher, Shireen Noori, quizzes students in an Advanced Placement environmental science class.
“Tell me about the Ocean Dumping Act of 19… finish it off,” she instructs a male student who, wearing a Berkeley sweatshirt, stands to answer. “1976,” he responds.
“Tell me about the law.”
“It prevented the dumping of industrial waste into the ocean,” he answered. His classmates clap as the teacher offers extra credit to a student who can name the correct year.
The students usually wear uniforms—black slacks, and polo shirts with the Alliance logo on them. But on Fridays, the school allows them to stray from the dress code slightly—as long as they wear a shirt branded with a university name.
California’s charter school law followed closely on the heels of Minnesota’s—it was the second state to allow chartering and, because of its size and influence on public policy, it helped propel the idea into the national consciousness.
In many ways, Los Angeles represents the rapid evolution of the charter concept and the direction in which philanthropy has pushed it. The city is a major beneficiary—or target, in the view of some critics—of foundation dollars. It brims with CMO-run schools in the college-prep, no-excuses mold.
Alliance is one of many homegrown charter networks in the city that has been buoyed by foundation funding. It serves mostly low-income, Latino students and has grown to 27 schools since opening its first in 2004. At around 12,000 students, the network is larger than many school districts in California.
The network has been the target of a major unionizing effort by the United Teachers Los Angeles, at a time when the influence of philanthropic money in the city’s K-12 system has come under increased scrutiny. That was triggered last fall when a plan crafted by the Broad Foundation to more than double the number of charter school seats in the city was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. With an influential foundation, powerful teachers’ union, and an elected school board that has been a political springboard for many of its members in the city’s backyard, Los Angeles reflects many of the tensions surrounding the charter sector nationally. Primarily that charters are no longer an incubator for the traditional district system, but an alternative to it.
“We are the proof point. If they take over this district, the dominos will fall across the country,” said Steve Zimmer, a former teacher and the board president of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district, with 640,000 students, is the second largest in the country.
“If you can destroy the bureaucracy here, you can do it anywhere. ... If you can destroy UTLA, you can destroy any public-sector union.”
Alliance College-Ready Public Schools,
Los Angeles, Calif. Mission: “To open and operate a network of small, high-performing high schools and middle schools in low income communities in California with historically under-performing schools, that will annually demonstrate student academic achievement growth, and graduate students ready for success in college.” Student Stats:
98% Latino or African American
94% Qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
Charter school students make up a little more than 20 percent of all public school students in Los Angeles, and the plan outlined in the memo from the Broad Foundation initially called for that number to grow to around 50 percent, although that plan is currently being revised to include schools other than charters.
The city already has more charter school students than any other city. The Broad plan, as it was outlined last fall, would push Los Angeles into a small club of cities that have crossed the 50 percent threshold: New Orleans and Detroit.
“We’ve reached a point of saturation,” said Zimmer. “When we lose more seats to charter schools, we’ve crossed a threshold where it has an effect on the key reforms that have been pushed by this district.”
While the Broad Foundation has invested millions in Los Angeles’ K-12 sector, it’s also emerged as one of the most influential players in education philanthropy over the past 15 years—giving over $150 million to charter schools nationally. Of that, $79 million has gone to charter schools in the Los Angeles area, according to the foundation.
One of the foundation’s most high-profile initiatives has been its annual Broad Prizes, which have awarded millions of dollars to charter management organizations and urban school districts for college readiness efforts and scholarships. But after 12 years of singling out districts it believed were closing achievement gaps, the Broad Foundation indefinitely suspended the prize for urban districts in 2015, citing sluggish academic progress.
The charter prize continues.
“We’ve always been an organization that looks very carefully at results,” said Gregory McGinity, the executive director for the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. “In terms of charters, this has been a mainstay for us because we’ve seen great data from these organizations and they’ve produced great opportunities for low-income families. The data is strong and the demand is strong.”
Although McGinity says the Broad Foundation is still devoted to supporting urban school systems, giving from foundations nationally has moved away from districts as the major players in education philanthropy have changed.
Giving to charter schools meanwhile, has ticked upward, and rose significantly from 2000 to 2010, according to data collected by Reckhow, the researcher from Michigan State University.
Although private philanthropy and federal dollars have been a boon for charter management organizations, there’s concern that new types of schools are being overlooked.
“I wish there was more assistance to outstanding schools that want to create one or two more schools,” instead of dozens, said Joe Nathan of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, who was also involved in crafting Minnesota’s charter law. “I think the role of philanthropy has been very powerful and very mixed.”
A 2015 report by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based charter advocacy organization, said that although some schools have pioneered radically different models, most charters look a lot like their district school counterparts.
The report pointed to risk-averse authorizers and philanthropists opting to back well-established models, such as CMOs, over untested ideas.
But innovation is in the eye of the beholder, and even charter school advocates are divided on whether the movement has really pushed the envelope.
Although Ember Reichgott Junge, the former Minnesota lawmaker, believes there should be more unique ideas coming out of the charter sector, she points to polling numbers from companies such as PDK/Gallup as proof that the experiment she helped launched 25 years ago is a success.
“I’m very thrilled that even today, two-thirds of America supports chartering,” she said. “I ask you what else does two-thirds of America support today?”
Coverage of issues related to creating opportunities for all American students and their families to choose a quality school is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2016 edition of Education Week as The Evolution of the ‘Chartered School’