Over the past two decades, charter schools have emerged as the fastest growing form of school choice, outpacing other alternatives such as vouchers, magnet schools, and homeschooling. Charters have also become a touchstone for how people feel about a host of related issues: job protections for teachers, the role of elected school boards and teachers unions, and the privatization of schools. The materials compiled in this section of Story Starters examine the ways charter schools and other school choice options play out in the education process.
Charter schools are publicly funded but run by independent boards. Usually, their teachers are not unionized and the operators do not have to adhere to all of same government regulations as district schools. Critics of charter schools argue they represent an attack on the public education system, erode the power of school boards and teachers unions, and can drain traditional schools of resources and more motivated families. Supporters say charter schools’ relative freedom from traditional strictures allows them to “innovate” by lengthening the school day or experimenting with the curriculum, for example. Supporters also maintain charters provide families, particularly poor ones, with more options and, at their best, spur the rest of the public system to improve.
The nation’s first modern charter school opened in 1992 in St. Paul, Minn., after that state became the first to pass legislation paving the way for the quasi-public, quasi-private schools. At the time of their inception, charter schools attracted politically diverse supporters with very different motivations. Some, including former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, hoped the schools might empower teachers to come together around a shared vision. Others, including William Bennett, the secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, hoped charters would create an educational “marketplace” and challenge the government’s virtual monopoly on running schools. Those same tensions over the purpose of charters persist today.
Charter schools have grown rapidly in number since 1992, as most states have adopted legislation allowing for their creation. Charters proliferated in the wake of several unsuccessful efforts to create or expand school voucher programs—which direct public funds to private schools —in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many state lawmakers, particularly Republicans, saw charters as a more politically viable means of introducing choice and competition into the public education sphere. In 2010, several states lifted their caps on the number of charter schools to compete more aggressively for a share of the $4.35 billion offered through the federal Race to the Top fund; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decided that states without restrictions on charter school growth would be favored in the application process. By 2011, only 10 states did not have some form of charter school law in place, and the number of students attending the independently run schools topped two million—up from 1.1 million five years earlier.
Charter school laws vary considerably among states. They differ in terms of who can approve and start a charter school, the length of the contract, and whether the teachers can belong to unions. About 12 percent of charter schools nationally were unionized as of 2010. Typically, state laws will spell out who can authorize charter schools: Most often state departments of education and local school boards serve as authorizers, although in some states universities, nonprofits, community groups and other governmental entities can as well. An independent charter board usually signs a contract—or “charter”—with the authorizer detailing the school’s plan and the performance goals it agrees to live up to over a set time frame.
In recent years, much of the debate over charter schools has focused on their performance, which most researchers concur is not significantly better or worse than traditional public schools, on average. One significantly comprehensive multi-state study found that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional schools in reading and math on state achievement tests; 37 percent performed worse; and the rest, nearly half, performed about the same. That finding has hardly put the debate about charter schools to rest, however. Critics pointedly note that charter schools have failed to transform public education and continue to draw outsized attention and private funding given what they see as mediocre results. But charter supporters home in on the hundreds of charter schools that are outperforming their traditional counterparts, arguing that it’s these outliers whose work and approach should — and can — be replicated.
Charter schools’ education philosophy, curriculum, popularity, and funding vary just as much as their results. Some charters are highly structured, while others have adopted progressive educational approaches, including Montessori and project-based learning. Some have waiting lists of hundreds of students, while others struggle to fill their seats. And some receive millions of dollars from private donors or foundations, while others spend less per pupil than traditional schools.
About 30 percent of charter schools are overseen by charter management organizations (CMOs) or education management organizations (EMOs): groups that run multiple schools, sometimes in a single geographic area and other times across different cities or states. EMOs manage a set of schools, usually imposing curriculum choices from the top down. EMOs do not always manage just charter schools, and they are more likely to be for-profit than CMOs.
Charter management organizations tend to function less like businesses than EMOs; CMO schools are united more by a shared educational philosophy than a particular business structure. When a CMO runs multiple schools in the same city or geographic area, the schools typically share “central office” or “back office” services, however. A majority of the nation’s charter schools — about 70 percent — are unaffiliated with management organizations. But CMO-led schools are growing at a faster rate than other types of charter schools, and many people consider them to be the future of the charter school movement, particularly in cities. A string of recent reports put out by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington scrutinized the sustainability of charter management organizations, which often rely on private funding sources and require their staffs to work longer school days. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) is one of the best known CMOs; in early 2012, it operated 109 schools in 20 states.
The charter school movement also faces increasing scrutiny over whether authorizers have been aggressive enough in closing poor and mediocre charter schools, particularly because the premise of charters is that they trade greater autonomy for greater accountability. About 15 percent of charter schools have been forced to close, according to one charter advocacy organization.
Finally, in a few cities, charter schools are expanding so significantly they could take over the entire system within a few years. In New Orleans and Youngstown, Ohio, more than half of the city public schoolchildren attend charters; in three other cities, more than a third do so. For anti-charter activists, such rapid growth raises concerns about privatization and the wholesale displacement of elected school boards and teachers unions. Meanwhile, advocates hope the long-term results in cities like New Orleans and Youngstown will prove charters can effectively educate urban schoolchildren at scale.
Other Types of Choice
Voucher programs let families send their children to private schools using government-funded tuition vouchers. Usually, voucher programs are limited to low-income families or students with special needs. The first modern voucher program started in Milwaukee in 1990. A coalition of African-American Democrats in the city and conservative leaders at the state level fought for the program. Voucher debates often produce unlikely political coalitions: Backers who see school choice for poor families as a social justice issue are often joined by those who favor a market-oriented approach to education. There are currently several voucher programs across the country, including in the District of Columbia, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. As with charter schools, the research on vouchers is very mixed. The limited data that exist suggest the academic impact of vouchers is negligible.
Tuition tax credits provide tax incentives for contributions to organizations that provide privately funded scholarships for students who want to attend private schools. In other forms, voucher-like tax credits offer parents who choose private schools some return on their costs. About a dozen states have some form of private school tax-credit program, including Arizona, Florida, and Iowa. Such programs have sometimes been described as “backdoor vouchers” because they create a more indirect mechanism for public money to subsidize private schools. Unlike vouchers, they are usually not limited to low-income or disabled students. Like charters, tax credit programs proliferated in the late 1990s and early 2000s as school choice backers discovered they were more politically palatable than vouchers.
Magnet schools usually have a specific theme or curricular focus, like the arts or technology, and draw students from throughout a city or geographic region. Magnets originated in the 1970s as part of voluntary and mandatory desegregation efforts across the country. The theory was that magnets would be able to attract diverse student bodies more easily than most neighborhood schools. In some cities magnets have selective admissions, meaning students have to audition or take a test to get in; in others they are open to all regardless of ability. Magnets declined in political popularity after the 1980s, when many states and cities started to dismantle school desegregation programs and charter schools began to flourish. Although their growth has stalled, magnet schools still exist in about 30 states and enroll about two million students, approximately the same number as charter schools.
Additional forms of school choice include home schooling, virtual schools, and interdistrict transfer programs. — Sarah Carr, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
A grand experiment in letting parents seize control of their neighborhood schools is unfolding in an impoverished Mojave Desert town — and lawmakers as far away as Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan are watching, and pondering the implications for troubled schools in their own states.
Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in Adelanto, Calif., will open for the academic year on Monday as the first school in the nation to have been remade under a law that gives parents the power to take over a low-performing public school and fire the principal, dismiss teachers or bring in private management.
Charter students on the whole end the school year with reading skills eight instructional days ahead of public school kids, and perform at about the same rate as public school students in math, according to the study released Tuesday by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO. In math, the study found that 29 percent of charter schools showed "significantly stronger learning gains" than their public school peers, with 40 percent performing similarly and 31 percent "significantly weaker." In reading, 25 percent of charters showed "significantly stronger learning gains" than public schools, 56 percent showed no difference and 19 percent showed "significantly weaker gains."Read More »
Teachers at one of Chicago’s largest charter-school networks — run by the United Neighborhood Organization — have voted to organize into a union. (Chicago Sun-Times)Read More »
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida have obtained internal emails and a recording of a company meeting that provide new insight into allegations that K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company, uses teachers in Florida who do not have all of the required state certifications. (Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida)Read More »
Long-segregated schools in urban American might finally, if uneasily integrate. (The Atlantic)Read More »
In this Mississippi River town marked by pockets of entrenched poverty, some of the worst schools in the state are in the midst of a radical experiment in reinventing public education. (The New York Times)Read More »
A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. (The New York Times)Read More »
Officials at Carpenter Community Charter, a top-notch elementary, think 120 children are enrolled fraudulently. They want to make room for students who live in the neighborhoodRead More »
Carpenter Community Charter is believed to be among the first L.A. Unified schools to launch a wide-scale crackdown on students who enroll using false addresses. (The Los Angeles Times)Read More »
It’s the latest sign that the District is on track to become a city where a majority of children are educated not in traditional public schools but in public charters: A California nonprofit group has proposed opening eight D.C. charter schools that would enroll more than 5,000 students by 2019. (Washington Post)Read More »
Students may be asked to submit a 15-page typed research paper, an original short story, or a handwritten essay on the historical figure they would most like to meet. There are interviews. Exams. And pages of questions for parents to answer, including: How do you intend to help this school if we admit your son or daughter?
These aren't college applications. They're applications for seats at charter schools. (Reuters)Read More »
Teachers in Michigan need some kind of certificate or permit to teach. Whether it's in a public school or a charter school, it doesn’t matter; it's Michigan law. (Michigan Public Radio)Read More »
Four groups vying to open Texas charter schools turned in applications last year that had sections copied from other applications, even claiming parts of another school’s public hearing summary as their own. (Dallas Morning News)Read More »
Call it the a la carte school.
The model, now in practice or under consideration in states including Louisiana, Michigan, Arizona and Utah, allows students to build a custom curriculum by selecting from hundreds of classes offered by public institutions and private vendors.
A teenager in Louisiana, for instance, might study algebra online with a private tutor, business in a local entrepreneur's living room, literature at a community college and test prep with the national firm Princeton Review - with taxpayers picking up the tab for it all. (Reuters)Read More »
But at the state and local levels, Democrats' views on vouchers are more diverse and nuanced than what is suggested by the party's national platform, which makes no mention of private school choice, or by the policies of the Obama administration, which has consistently opposed providing public money for private school costs.
Some Democrats see vouchers as offering an escape hatch for students who would otherwise be forced to stay in academically struggling public schools. Others say publicly funded private school scholarships provide opportunities for students to obtain a religious education they otherwise could not afford. (Education Week)Read More »
But here as in other cities across the nation, the role of charters ignites passions on both sides. Teachers regard them as a way for districts to undermine union protections, and say that underperforming schools are often closed before they have a chance to improve, and then are replaced with charters. (The New York Times)Read More »
Teachers unions have been the Democratic Party's foot soldiers for more than half a century, providing not only generous financial backing but an army of volunteers in return for support of their entrenched power in the nation's public schools.
But this relationship is fraying, and the deterioration was evident Monday as Democrats gathered here for their national convention.Read More »
The nation's Roman Catholic schools have labored for decades under increasingly adverse economic and demographic conditions, which have undermined their finances and sapped their enrollment. Today, researchers and supporters say those schools face one of their most complex challenges yet: the continued growth of charter schools.Read More »
Since they first opened two decades ago, charter schools have emerged as competitors to Catholic schools for reasons connected to school systems' missions, their academic models, and the populations they serve. (Education Week)
"The National Parent Teacher Association has revamped its policy to make it clear that it supports giving entities other than local school boards the right to approve charter schools, a new position the group argues will increase its ability to shape policy within the diverse and growing sector of independent public schools." (Education Week)Read More »
Los Angeles school officials are fighting a court order, which took effect Wednesday, that would set aside more classroom seats for charter schools — even if that means traditional schools will lose space for parent centers, computer labs, academic intervention and other services. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
This page provides links to Education Week’s latest news and coverage of charter schools.Read More »
This 2011 investigative three-part series examined the proliferation of for-profit companies running charter schools in Florida, and the student demographics at charter v. traditional schools in that state. (Miami Herald)Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. The good, the bad and the ugly in charter schools: denying entry to students with disabilities, plush charters that cater to wealthy students while subsisting off public funds, and the rise of online-only schools are all described in this series of articles. (Bloomberg News)Read More »
This 2010 story contrasted a successful charter school in New York City with a struggling one in Cleveland and scrutinized the challenges in replicating the highest performing charters. (The New York Times)Read More »
This five-part series published in 2009 followed four families through the process of selecting and enrolling in schools in the city with the nation’s highest percentage of charters. It explored how socioeconomic class, connections and parent schedules can all affect a family’s capacity to find a quality school. (New Orleans Times-Picayune)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. This investigative report examined the reasons Alabama’s 2010 Race to the Top application scored the fewest points of any state. It dispels the rumor that the status of charter schools hurt the state’s bid for federal money: Only 40 points were at stake if the state heralded in more charters, which would have helped the state finish second to last in the RTT competition instead of last. The article concludes that the state’s application writers missed many steps, and failed to consult key constituent groups, including labor organizations. (Press-Register)Read More »
This investigative series exposed corruption in Arizona’s private school tuition tax credit program. It showed that families who could already afford the cost of private schools were among the biggest beneficiaries of the program, which failed to increase minority student access to private options. (East Valley Tribune)Read More »
In 2005, reporters visited nearly all of the schools in Milwaukee’s voucher program for this series. The articles looked at the lack of accountability in the program, and the role of religion at the schools, among other topics. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
In the aggregate, charter school students in the 26 states in the new study gained an additional 8 days of learning each year in reading beyond their local peers in traditional public schools. The 2009 study found a loss of 7 days each year in reading among the students in the 16 states. In mathematics, charter school students in 2009 posted 22 fewer days of learning than their traditional public school counterparts; today there exists no significant difference in days of learning.Read More »
Large-scale public school closures have become a fact of life in many American cities, and that trend is not likely to stop now. In a previous study, The Pew Charitable Trusts looked at a wide range of issues involved in the shuttering of buildings, including the impact on students. For this report, we focused on what happens to the buildings themselves, studying the experiences of Philadelphia and 11 other cities that have decommissioned large numbers of schools in recent years. (The Pew Charitable Trusts)Read More »
CREDO's study "test[s] the idea that new charters hit their mark early in their operations and do not vary much after that." (Center for Research on Education Outcomes)Read More »
School Choice Demonstration Project School Choice Demonstration Project (An Evaluation of Milwaukee’s Voucher Program)March 6, 2012
These ongoing studies from the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform analyze several aspects of Milwaukee’s voucher programs, including parent satisfaction, student results, and fiscal impact. While they found parent satisfaction levels were high, they reported little evidence students in the voucher program were doing significantly better or worse in school than students in the traditional public system.Read More »
The main study in this ongoing series by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education evaluated the student demographics, learning practices and results at charter schools run by CMOs. Among other findings, its authors conclude that CMO-run school serve higher percentages of low-income, minority students than traditional schools but fewer children with special needs; and that CMO-run schools with comprehensive student behavior plans perform better than those without such plans in place. (CRPE)Read More »
This 2010 study looked at student results in 36 charter middle schools across 15 states. Overall, it found charter school students learned at about the same rate as students in comparable traditional schools. (Institute of Education Sciences)Read More »
This 2009 study found that students who won admission to New York City’s charter schools (through random lotteries) performed better over time than students who did not win admission and remained in traditional schools. (National Bureau of Economic Research)Read More »
This 2009 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes evaluated charter school performance across several states. It found that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional schools; 37 percent performed worse; and the rest, nearly half, performed about the same. (CREDO)Read More »
This 2008 study from UCLA’s The Civil Rights Project primarily scrutinized the student demographics of magnet schools as opposed to charter schools, concluding that charter schools are more racially segregated, on average, than magnets. (The Civil Rights Project)Read More »
This 2004 U.S. Department of Education report found that traditional schools outperformed charter schools on state performance standards. It hesitated to draw broad conclusions about charter schools’ relative merits, however, noting the large number of variables affecting school performance made apples to apples comparisons impossible. (U.S. Department of Education)Read More »
Five Questions To Ask
- How do the school results (test scores, graduation rates, student retention rates) and student demographics (free and reduced-price lunch rates, racial breakdown, special education population) at the charter schools in your district compare with those at the traditional schools?
- Who can authorize charter schools in your state, and what percent of the applicants who apply for charters get approved?
- Who evaluates charter schools and how? Have any of the charter schools in your region ever closed? Why or why not?
- What other forms of school choice exist in your region? Are there voucher programs (or proposals), magnet schools, or interdistrict transfer options? Have any of these types of choice increased or decreased in size significantly in recent years? Why or why not?
- What types of school choice do parents prefer? What are some of the reasons they have chosen a charter school instead of a traditional one, or vice versa? Do the district or other groups create guides, host meetings, or provide other resources that help parents navigate their school options and ensure a level playing field for families choosing schools?
The Annenberg Institute for School Reform “is a national policy-research and reform support organization that promotes quality education for all children, especially in urban communities. The Institute's primary lines of inquiry include school transformation, college and career readiness, and extended learning time.” Founded in 1993 and based at Brown University, their research on school turnarounds often examines charters and other choice options.
The Black Alliance for Educational Options, based in Washington, D.C. and founded in 2000, “firmly believes parental choice programs, which lead to the creation of quality educational options, not only rescue the children who can take advantage of such opportunities but also create powerful incentives for all schools, public and private, to improve.”
Founded in 1993 at the University of Washington, the Center on Reinventing Public Education's "work is based on two premises: that public schools should be measured against the goal of educating all children well, and that current institutions too often fail to achieve this goal.” Their National Charter School Research Project and District-Charter Collaboration Compacts are valuable resources for journalists covering school choice issues.
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes, originally established at Rochester University in 1999 and now based at Stanford University, looks at education reform “with an emphasis on rigorous program and policy analysis as the means of informing and improving education decision making.” Their 2009 report that found that students at charter schools nationwide overall performed at the same level or worse than those in traditional public schools is one of the landmarks in the discussion of charter schools.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit organization that works to improve “the academic and operational quality of public charter schools so that ‘charter’ is recognized as a reliable brand, [clear] the legislative path for increased growth so high-quality charter schools can meet parent demand, [and secure] the sustainability of charter schools by moving toward fiscal equity in public funding, particularly for charter facilities.”
The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, headquartered in Chicago, works to ensure that the groups establishing and operating charter schools have the resources and support to educate children. The “Authorizer Comparison” tool, an interactive map which details state-by-state the statistics for charter schools, is one of the many useful reporting resources available on the association’s site.
The National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education aims “to provide an independent, non-partisan source of analysis and information on privatization in education.” In addition to their own research regarding the charter school movement, the NCSPE also tracks news coverage of charter schools, linking to stories nationwide. The Center is based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.