Charter Schools: 10 Years of Progress

Ten years ago last week, the first charter school opened its doors in Minnesota. Over the past decade, a single school with just 20 students has blossomed into a full-fledged movement of more than 2,400 schools and more than half a million students. And the numbers continue to grow. To date, 38 states have charter schools of various kinds – led by Arizona (437 schools), California (350), Texas (219), Michigan (188) and Florida. The latest to join the club was Indiana last year.

What exactly are charter schools? Charter schools are independent public schools that are freed from many of the bureaucratic regulations that prevent innovation and flexibility in traditional public schools. Charters cannot pick their own students, but they do have the autonomy to develop and employ programs and approaches tailored to the specific needs of their community, such as arts-oriented programs or services for special needs children. Unlike traditional public schools, charters face the ultimate accountability test: If they do not provide an adequate education to the children they have agreed to teach, they can be closed.

So how are charters doing? Charter schools are still fairly new, and are only now beginning to mature to the point that student achievement data can be collected and measured. Researchers have had to wait until several years of measurable student assessment data had accrued before they could begin examining how charters impact student learning and school districts. There are hundreds of subjective and anecdotal views on charter schools, but relatively few research-based studies drawn from evaluation of hard data. The Center for Education Reform – a Washington, D.C., based think tank that keeps tabs on the charters in the U.S. – found only about 65 research-based studies.

Nevertheless, we can draw some tentative conclusions based on the data we have gathered to date. An examination of the existing literature suggests that charters have generally been innovative, accountable and successful, and have had positive impacts for the children who attend them and the public schools within their district. A couple of examples:

  • The U.S. Department of Education studied the impact of charters on school districts in 49 districts in 2001. In response to the opening of charter schools, school districts typically became more customer service oriented, increased the frequency of their communication with parents and implemented new educational programs.
  • Another U.S. Department of Education study found that the median student to teacher ratio for charter schools – 16 students per teacher – was slightly lower than the 17.2-to-1 ratio for public schools overall. In addition, nearly 7 of 10 charter schools have a student racial/ethnic composition that is similar to their surrounding district. About 17 percent serve a higher percentage of minority students than their surrounding district.
  • The Illinois State Board of Education released a report last year of the state's charter schools. The report found that charter schools "have been successful for the students they serve … [and] are serving as seeds of change in their local communities."

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There have been prominent cases of charter schools across the country closing their doors due to lack of funding, resources or enrollment. Those exceptions have been highly publicized, but we shouldn't lose sight of the big picture: The vast majority of charters are alive and well, providing choices for families who previously had none and opportunities for children who may not fit well into the mold of their traditional public school.

As the experiment moves into its second decade, there are several hurtles that charter schools will have to overcome. Most importantly, because charters are a relatively new concept, there is little institutional literature for new schools to draw from. There are only a handful of charter school studies, as mentioned earlier, and few resources charters can draw from. As a recent USA Today column quipped, charters are "guided more by instinct than science." Clearly, more research is needed. Also, in some parts of the country, charter schools face opposition from state leaders and the educational establishment, even in states that already have strong charter laws.

That being said, if the last decade is any indication, charter schools are the wave of the future in educational reform. Here's to another decade of new choices and options for parents and children who are fed up with their traditional public schools.