Charter schools represent a relatively new school reform strategy in the United States for children in kindergarten through 12th grade (K−12). Starting with the passage of the first charter school law by the legislature of Minnesota in 1991, the number of states with charter school legislation has grown to 41 states and the District of Columbia. At the beginning of the 2004 school year, there were approximately 3,000 charter schools with an estimated enrollment of more than 650,000 K−12 children.
What are charter schools and why were they created? A charter school is a publicly funded school operating under a charter or contract granted by a state or a local education agency such as a school board, public university, or state board of education. Charters may be entirely new or conversions of existing public schools. The charter determines the operating provisions for the school, including funding, performance objectives, mission, and student population. Because charters operate as public schools and are users of public funds, they must be nonsectarian. They may recruit students from a particular geographic area or for a specific academic theme, although they must take all applicants. If demand exceeds available space, students are admitted by lottery. As schools, charters tend to have smaller enrollments than traditional public schools and are found in a variety of grade-level configurations from kindergarten through high school.
When considering charter schools, it is important to identify the state in which the charter operates because charter school laws differ significantly from state to state. Some states, such as Arizona and California, have more than 500 charter schools. In these instances, the state laws are very favorable and encouraging to charters, while other states have more restrictive laws. Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia, for example, each have fewer than 10 schools. As of January 2005, 10 states were without charter school legislation.
Contracts to operate charter schools are granted for anywhere from 3 to 10 years depending on the state law. As public schools, charters must address state curricular frameworks and meet state testing requirements. They also are responsible for the mandates imposed by the federal legislation, P.L. 107–110, known as the No Child Left Behind Act enacted by Congress in 2000. Charters receive support from many political groups and national organizations. Both former President Clinton and President George W. Bush have actively supported the concept and have approved federal expenditures to provide technical assistance to these schools.
In general, charter school laws embody several important school reform theories. The first is that parents should be given greater opportunity and voice to choose among a variety of options for the education of their children. Parents, it is believed, will know what is best for their children. Second, by granting charter schools greater autonomy and freedom from existing bureaucratic requirements, charters will be liberated to become more creative and innovative in their ability to deliver effective educational services. A third view is that charters will introduce a desired market-like environment into public education, causing traditional and charter schools to compete for students. Through this competition, it is argued, poorly performing schools will lose customers and be driven out of business. These theories embody what is often called a basic bargain, in which charters accept increased autonomy in exchange for greater accountability from the chartering agency. Should a charter fail to meet the conditions of its charter, it will be closed.
Charter schools are viewed contentiously in some quarters. Several organizations and individuals worry that charters are draining public dollars from public schools. When a child leaves a traditional public school to attend a charter school, money that would have gone to the traditional school to support the child is transferred to the charter school. In another area, opponents and supporters argue about the academic success of these schools. Several recent studies report conflicting answers on this question. In the end, far more research and investigation of charter schools will be necessary to determine whether these schools represent a viable reform strategy for the improvement of K−12 education.
- American Federation of Teachers, http://www.aft.org/topics/charters/indehtm
- Hill, P., Lake, R., & Celio, M. (2002). Charter schools and accountability in public education. Washington, DC: Brookings
- S. Charter Schools, http://www.uscharterschools.org/pub/uscs_docs/index.htm