Charter Schools Turn 30: Achievements and Challenges Going Forward

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How can American public education reduce inequality and advance educational opportunity, a goal sought by policymakers on the political left and right?

One of the least acknowledged but – oddly – controversial ways is to expand the number of quality public charter schools.

The thirtieth anniversary of the nation’s first charter law on June 4 is an opportunity to recall charter schools’ purpose, bipartisan political origins, and continued educational promise, while acknowledging there’s room for improvement.

What is chartering?

It’s a governance innovation in K-12 schools, organizing public education in a new way by removing the school district from the business of operating schools.

It allows enterprising individuals and independent, nonprofit boards of directors – operators – to create new independent public schools based on the principles of choice, competition, and innovation.

Schools are overseen by duly constituted government entities – authorizers – like special chartering boards or public universities that negotiate performance contracts with operators.

They are open to all comers and accountable for the results they promise to achieve. If enrollment requests surpass available seats, a lottery determines admissions.

From the start, the charter project involved a collection of surprising bedfellows.  

Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, injected the charter idea into national K-12 policy discussions in a 1988 National Press Club speech. Three years later, Minnesota Republican governor Arne Carlson signed bipartisan legislation creating the nation’s first charter school law, introduced by Democratic-Farmer-Labor state senator Ember Reichgott.    

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed legislation creating the federal Charter School Program, co-sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican.

Pro-charter bipartisanship continued with Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump and was paralleled in almost every statehouse that engaged in chartering.

That’s because this education reform addresses priorities on both left and right, allowing families choices of a free K-12 public school that meets their child’s needs, rather than a forced assignment to a district school.

It’s an alternative delivery system that gives families access to potentially higher-quality schools than what they are experiencing.  

Yet charters remain public schools: open to all, tuition-free, and accountable for results to authorizers.

Today, 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam have charter school laws that have created more than 7,500 schools employing 200,000-plus teachers and serving 3.3 million students.

The best charters consistently make greater student achievement gains than traditional public schools. They show what University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski calls “a consistent pattern” of improvement “[with] students [who] are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite.”

Chartering has also served as an “R & D” center for public education, pioneering new forms of K-12 governance, such as statewide Recovery School Districts that restart low-performing schools as charter or charter-like schools. Post-Katrina Louisiana is a prominent example.

The District of Columbia is another, with almost equal numbers of its more than 94,000 students enrolled in separately governed district and charter sectors, ultimately answerable to the mayor.

Other charter-inspired governance models include “portfolio” districts and partner-run schools, where districts transfer school governance to independent nonprofit organizations like Innovation Schools in Indianapolis, Luminary Learning Network in Denver, and District Campus Charter Schools in Texas.

There are also district-run schools operating with waivers from policies like collective bargaining agreements, as with the Fulton County Georgia Charter System, which has converted 22 of its schools to charters.

The first 30 years of chartering have taught us one major lesson. Merely placing a charter sign on a school reveals surprisingly little – beyond that it’s a “school of choice” with some freedom to be different.

And though many charters have innovated in various ways, there’s still a regrettable sameness across the sector, which hasn’t always functioned as well as an “R & D” effort as many hoped.

Neither has it fulfilled Shanker’s vision that charters would emerge as teacher-created, teacher-run schools. At the same time, the district sector and teachers’ unions have generally shunned chartering rather than engaging with and learning from it.

Perhaps the greatest challenge ahead is the collapse of the longstanding, bipartisan support for charters: on the right, some see charters as an overly regulated marketplace of faux choice; on the left, some see charters as exclusive or otherwise inequitable. Rebuilding that coalition is important to the future of chartering.  

Through a combination of choice, competition, and innovation, chartering betters the academic and life outcomes of K-12 students, thereby reducing inequality, widening opportunity, strengthening the position of parents, and enhancing civil society. These are remarkable accomplishments over 30 years – and they are worth protecting and cultivating.

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