What Is a Charter School?
Charter schools are public schools operating under a “charter,” essentially a contract entered into between the school and its authorizing agency. In addition to allowing the school to open, the charter allows the school with significant operational autonomy to pursue specific educational objectives. The autonomy granted under the charter agreement allows the school considerable decision-making authority over key matters of curriculum, personnel, and budget. Charter schools are often not a part of states’ current districts and, therefore, have few if any zoning limitations. Therefore, students attend charter schools by the choice of their parents or guardians rather than by assignment to a school district.
Due to their lack of zoning, charter schools are usually funded in a manner that is distinct from how traditional schools are funded. However, nearly all charter schools receive public dollars. As public schools, charter schools are prohibited from charging tuition. If applications to attend a charter school exceed spaces available, enrollment is decided by lottery. In exchange for this autonomy, the charter school is subject to periodic performance review and may be closed for failing to meet agreed-upon outcomes. Charter schools are not exempt from federal laws that cover equal rights. access, and discrimination.
It is difficult to generalize about such a widespread phenomenon. Charter schools encompasses large, urban-centered networks of schools like KIPP and Uncommon Schools, rural charter schools serving dispersed student bodies to online charter schools and charter schools in Hawaii that focus on native culture. Some charter schools explicitly prohibit their teachers from being union-members while others have entirely unionized staffs. Although many of these differences emerge on a state to state basis, there is considerable diversity within the same state as well. The common denominator in every state is a focus on student achievement and a unique funding process.
The charter school movement has roots in a number of other education reform ideas, from alternative schools to site-based management, magnet schools, public school choice, privatization, and community-parental empowerment. The term “charter” may have originated in the 1970s when New England educator Ray Budde suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or “charters” by their local school boards to explore new approaches. Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, then publicized the idea, suggesting that local boards could charter an entire school with union and teacher approval to serve as labs for ideas that could then expand.
In the late 1980s, Philadelphia started some schools-within-schools and called them “charters.” Some of them were schools of choice. The idea was further refined in Minnesota where charter schools were developed according to three basic values: opportunity, choice, and responsibility for results. This was occurring at a time when greater accountability in education, oversite of public funds, and high quality training for educators were priorities. Charter schools were seen as a way to meet these many goals.
In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2015 that number increased to 42 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Charter schools have steadily grown every year for over a decade, enjoying broad support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education. In his 1997 State of the Union Address, President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2002. In 2002, President Bush called for $200 million to support charter schools. Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Education has provided grants to support states’ charter school efforts.
Since the first Charter School Program grants in 1994, the federal government via the U.S. Department of Education has spent nearly $4 billion in support of charter schools. These funds have mostly been dispersed to state education agencies who then pass along the funds to charter schools to various expenses. Startup expenses in particular are offset by these funds. President Obama proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $375 million earmarked for charter schools. This was nearly a 50% increase on typical funding to charter schools during his administration. Additionally, congressional attempts to rewrite No Child Left behind have also increased the amount of funding to charter schools. Having had consistent presidential backing since the Clinton administration to the present day, charter schools seem likely to continue their rapid expansion.
Charter applicants can take many forms as provided under state law such as groups of parents or charter school management organizations. Charter management organizations (CMOs) are organizations that contract with an individual school or schools to deliver management services. These services typically include curriculum development, assessment design, professional development, systems implementation, back-office services, teacher recruitment, facility services, and efforts to ensure subject matter competence. KIPP, BASIS, and Uncommon Schools are examples of CMOs. The larger CMOs are often the national face of the movement, pushing for more charter schools and laws favorable to charter schools. Nevertheless, most charter schools are independent or in very small networks entirely within their state.
There is a wide array of charter school types. Charter schools may be specialized, either as to their programmatic focus (such as a STEM academy) or students served (prior drop-outs), though many simply serve mainstream populations with a distinct academic approach. There are charter schools in all sorts of settings – rural, urban, and suburban – and even online charter schools providing distance-learning opportunities. Some charter schools operate as neighborhood schools, having “turned-around” or “converted” traditional district schools. Charter-district collaboration, which usually takes the form of a charter school within a traditional school in the same building, has become more prevalent. These collaborations create a relationship by which charter schools and traditional school districts can learn from each other.
Policy & Accountability for Charter Schools
Each of the 42 state statutes enabling charter schools is unique but share a few common features that derive from charter schools being public schools. Charter schools must be non-discriminatory in admissions, serve all students including those with disabilities, and partake in their state's testing and accountability systems. Each statute also establishes the entities that serve as charter school authorizers. Authorizers can be state education agencies, local school districts, higher education institutions or other designated entities. Authorizers are the agencies that grant the “charter” in response to an applicant seeking to open a charter school and perform ongoing charter school oversight duties as required by law. Authorizers ensure charter school student achievement levels remain high.
The charter application itself provides detailed information as to the schools intended student population, governance structure, accountability, budget and other elements required to establish and operate a public school. The authorizer oversees its schools for the duration of the charters. Charter schools receive public dollars on a per-pupil basis that may approximate funding applicable to local district schools depending on the state.
Governance is a core element of any charter school’s operation. The most common model of charter school board governance might be thought of as a sort of combination between school district boards of education (without local elections) and non-profit boards (though not generally private). In nearly all states, charter schools are required to be not-for-profit and abide by open-record laws during board meetings.
Charter schools can be authorized by a variety of entities. Performance contracts with authorizers govern a charter school's operation and covers issues such as academic goals and includes a description of how student performance will be measured pursuant to required state assessments. Authorizers hold charter schools accountable.
Local school boards, public post-secondary entities, and the state boards of education are the usual authorizers. They review applications for charter schools and then supervise the charter school if approved. States vary in authorizing structure, and some allow only for the state board of education to authorize charters.
Student Achievement in Charter Schools
Although there are some charter schools that have achieved remarkable results with students, the nationwide academic results of charter schools are inconclusive. Some recent studies have shown the average charter school student outperforms her peer in traditional schools; older studies have found no difference.
A recent report by the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC), Student Achievement in Charter Schools, presents the findings from a randomized study of charter schools:
- Charter students overall perform better in math and reading (4 of 5 studies)
- Low-income charter students perform better in math (all 5 studies) and reading (4 of 5 studies)
- Urban charter students perform better (5 of 5 studies) whereas non-urban charter students perform worse (2 of 2 studies)
- Charter students with low prior achievement perform better (2 of 3 studies)
- Minority charter students perform better (3 of 3 studies)
- Limited evidence that ELs and students with disabilities in charter schools perform better (only 1 study)
- No impact on student behavior (2 of 2 studies)
These findings align with that of other reports, such as CREDO’s National Charter School Study (2013). However, there is a need for further study focused on specific geographies and populations of students (e.g., nonurban, elementary, Hispanic, English learners, and special education students) to validate the sector accomplishments in student achievement. This is especially important because student results often determine where public funds go within the charter school space. Clearer results will lead to greater accountability.
Beyond academic performance, the sector has made substantial advancements in quality, progressing in organizational efficiency, innovation, accountability, and general public acceptance. Charter schools have proven their scalability in cities such as Washington D.C., New Orleans, Louisiana, Gary, Indiana, and Detroit, Michigan. High-performing charter management organizations are also replicating at a faster rate. For innovation, charter schools are implementing new learning models, governance systems, funding structures, and high quality training programs. The sector is winning an increasing number of Investing in Innovation (i3) federal grants, given for innovative practices for student achievement. The improvement in authorizer practices results in greater accountability for the sector. This can be observed through the approval of higher-quality schools and closure of poorly-performing ones. Despite the debates and challenges (below) surrounding the initiative, public opinion has largely advanced in favor of charter schools, with a majority of Americans supporting charter schools according to the 2015 PDK/Gallup Poll.
Charter schools continue to face limited access to resources and opportunities. Charter schools must secure funds to cover startup and other costs not faced by traditional schools. Acquiring a facility is a particular challenge. Charter schools typically rely on philanthropic, state, and federal grant programs to assist with these costs. However, these funding streams may be inadequate and unreliable for school needs. The sector also experiences narrow pipelines of human capital and talent. This includes qualified teachers, school leadership, executive leadership, and board members.
Quality and Oversight
While the sector as a whole has made significant improvements in quality, there is still a large degree of variance and inconsistency among schools. Low-performing schools manage to persist despite closure activity by authorizers. In many states, the sector growth has outpaced existing accountability mechanisms and authorizer capacity. Inconsistent accountability is partly due to resource constraints and underfunded regulators. It can also be blamed on the variation in authorizer laws and quality across states.
Equity and Access
Although charter schools have expanded rapidly, the replication of high-performing schools has been irregular. There has been a clustering of charter schools in particular cities and an uneven investment in expansion efforts. Charter schools have yet to fully address the needs of all students—namely, special populations, such as English language learners and students with disabilities. In particular, charters are serving a lower percentage of students with disabilities.
As one of the widest reaching school reform initiatives, charter schools have been the source of much debate. The primary question is whether charter schools are working or not, focusing on charter school impact on student achievement. The other topics of debate stem from the central tenet of charter schools, namely autonomy and the decentralization of accountability.
Student achievement results in charter schools are inconclusive to positive compared to traditional schools. Charter schools, due to the autonomy they have to innovate and experiment, are given leeway to try newer methods. However, in the two school years that ended 2012 and 2013, nearly 500 charter schools were closed. Due to the limited nature of their charter, it is much easier to close a charter school than it is to close a traditional school. If a charter school is mismanaged or its approach does not lead to better student results, the experiment ends. The vast majority of charter schools are well-run and face no prospect of closure.
Charter schools often have to pay for their own facilities. This has led some states to increase the amount of their education funds allocated to charter schools, to offset facility acquisition and maintenance cost. As funds going to charter schools have increased, the clamor against their unelected boards has grown—as has the frequency of the “publically funded, privately run” moniker for charter schools. Charter school families sometime elect the board that governs the charter school, but often charter school boards are not subject to election. Charter schools do not have concrete zoning limits and there is therefore no set electorate. Although it varies by state, charter schools for this reason are often funded by only statewide taxes.
Unions and Charter Schools
The tension between unions and charter schools often dominates the headlines. Charter schools were originally championed by union leaders and that amicable relationship persists in various states, where charter school teachers are unionized. The current tension often stems from the fact that charter schools are often exempt from typical teacher laws regarding unions and normal certification. Unions often have long-standing relationships with school districts, and often charter schools are viewed as taking students and funds outside of those districts. Nevertheless, charter schools often cooperate with districts and unions.
According to the 2015 PDK/Gallup poll, the quality of teachers is one of the most important factors for parents in choosing a public school. The question for charter schools pertains to their ability to recruit and retain high quality teachers in conjunction with varying degrees of autonomy across states. Federal regulation stipulates that all teachers and paraprofessionals working in a program supported by Title I meet applicable State certification and licensure requirements, including any requirements for alternative certification programs. Each state has the freedom to determine its own certification requirements. Depending on the state charter school laws, charter schools may be exempt from state certification requirements. However, the majority of states require certification or stipulate alternative requirements for charter schools.
The NCSRC exists to assist all charter schools in achieving their goals. Funded by the US Department of Education, the NCSRC began operating in 2010 and is a comprehensive collection of the information needed to build top-notch charter schools. Our thousand-plus resources, from reports on serving certain student populations to video case studies profiling high-performing schools, are meant to promote best practices. With 7% of the K-12 student population, charter schools have a big part to play in improving K-12 student outcomes and the NCSRC is here to help. As you navigate the website, please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions.
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