Charter schools are sort of the gateway drug of school choice. As publicly funded, tuition-free education options, they're not hugely different from the traditional public schools with which they compete. And yet the private management of charter schools allows for an astonishing degree of experimentation in terms of curriculum, philosophy, and structure, and makes it comparatively easy to close institutions that don't meet expectations. As a result, as modest an innovation as charter schools appear on the surface, they're embraced by families of children who have been failed by traditional models.
Despite the opposition they often draw from teachers' unions, charter schools were originally championed by Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, as a means of helping students underserved by traditional public schools. The first official charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992. The model has since spread across the country, largely remaining true to its original mission.
"According to most recently available data, 68.7% of charter school students and 52.4% of district school students are students of color, while 59.3% of charter school students and 54.3% of district school students were economically disadvantaged students," reports the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The number of students served by charter schools increased from 1.6 million to 3.3 million between 2009 and 2018, according to U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. That represents a jump from 3 percent to 7 percent of public-school students, although the share varies widely from state to state. Some states still have no charter schools (West Virginia is introducing them now), while 18 percent of public-school students in Arizona attend a charter. But those numbers have been growing for a reason: People are generally impressed by the results achieved by charter schools.
"Lottery-based studies of urban charter schools consistently show that charters improve students' academic achievement and some longer-term outcomes, particularly among Black and Latinx students, students with disabilities, and low-performing students," concludes a 2021 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Sarah Cohodes and Katharine Parham of Columbia University.
"Given their small market share, charters' greatest potential impact may come just as economic theory would predict—through their competitive impact on neighboring public schools," they add. "A number of studies assessing the competitive impacts of charters have found that charters improve student achievement in nearby traditional public schools."
Charter schools have a positive impact long past the classroom in terms of successfully sending their graduates all the way through college to earn bachelor's degrees.
"Overall, the big charter networks are seeing college success rates that are anywhere from three to five times the rates for low-income students nationally," Richard Whitmire wrote for the education publication The 74 in 2017. "The most successful networks are all in the 50 percent range — half of their alumni earn bachelor's degrees within six years. Nationally, 9 percent of the students from low-income families meet that mark."
Not every charter school achieves such success, of course. Like any other venture, some charters go off the rails, are run into the ground by poor management, or just fail at their mission. Teachers' unions, having wandered far from the days of Albert Shanker's advocacy of charters, are more than happy to point to charter schools that don't do a good job. But that's part of the attraction of charters; when they fail, as some institutions inevitably do, it's easier to close one independently managed school and move its kids to competitors than to shut the doors of a traditional district school that has a near-monopoly on students in a geographic area.
"As difficult as it is to close a school, that is what is required to ensure that California's charter movement fulfills its promises to students and the state, and maintains the high level of achievement required to continue to play a transformational role in the education system for years to come," Jed Wallace, then-president of the California Charter Schools Association, wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2013.
"Charter school advocates see closures as an unfortunate but necessary part of a bargain that should benefit students: Schools get more autonomy to operate, but if they fall short of their goals, they have to close," Chalkbeat Detroit noted five years later.
That ability to try, fail, try again, and ultimately do better by students while inspiring the competition to put in more effort wins support not just from the parents of charter students, but from the public at large. In December 2021 polling by EdChoice, 90 percent of charter school parents report being very or somewhat satisfied with their children's schooling, compared to 78 percent of district school parents (96 percent of private school parents and 88 percent of homeschool parents report being satisfied).
The same poll found overall public support for charter schools at 68 percent.
As you might expect of an education model rooted in the idea of providing a more flexible alternative to traditional public schools, charters need leeway in order to properly function and offer the greatest benefit to children. For that reason, the Educational Freedom Institute (EFI) now ranks states based on the environments they offer, published most recently in the EFI Charter School Ecosystems Rankings (ECER) report for 2022.
"The report is grounded in a simple idea: States with charter schools that are widely available to students and produce greater learning gains are ranked high, while states with charter schools that are less available and produce smaller gains are ranked lower," James Paul, EFI's director of research, observed in December 2021. Combining consideration of such measures as the percentage of students enrolled in charters and student test scores, EFI developed rankings that reward charter-friendly jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C.; Arizona; Louisiana; and Oklahoma.
"The ECER 2022 rankings should be used by parents, researchers, policymakers, and advocates to see which states have charter school laws and policies worth emulating," the report urges.
Given the achievements of charter schools as a "gateway" to school choice, and the satisfaction reported by the parents of students in these education options, emulating the example of places that have made the model work is good advice.