Charter school

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In the United States, a charter school is a school that is created via a legal charter. Usually (a) they are created with an express purpose or philosophy and (b) typically they are controlled in-house and not controlled by the local school district. Laws governing them vary from state to state.

Charter schools are an American school idea that allows publicly funded schools to act and operate like private schools. The theory is that competition from charter schools will force the other public schools to perform better.

Charter schools are commonly founded as magnet schools, or as schools for at-risk kids or those with special educational needs.

Critics of charter schools as magnets claim they siphon off the best students and leave the public schools worse off. The National Education Association, the largest union of teachers, supports charter schools, so long as they have "the same standards of accountability and access as other public schools."

Opinions vary as to the success of charter schools, in part because of the philosophical outlook taken, and in part because—as may be expected—such schools vary one from another in quality, competence and effectiveness.

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991, and as of the 2004-2005 school year, approximately 3,300 charter schools are in operation in 40 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling nearly 1 million students (National Charter School Directory, The Center for Education Reform ( Charter schools reflect their founders' varied philosophies, programs, and organizational structures, serve diverse student populations, and are committed to improving public education.

Charter schools are freed of many restrictive rules and regulations. In return, these schools are expected to achieve educational outcomes within a certain period (usually three to five years) or have their charters revoked by sponsors (a local school board, state education agency, or university).


Charter school popularity

Some members of the public are dissatisfied with educational quality and school district bureaucracies (Jenkins and Dow 1996). Today's charter-school initiatives are rooted in the educational reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, from state mandates to improve instruction, to school-based management, school restructuring, and private/public-choice initiatives. Sometimes those attending charter schools may not feel that it is such a great place. When directors from the board come and talk with students they hear mostly highlights. Charter school students do not always feel that it is a great place to learn and or be in. Many students have problems with the some of the current charter schools

The charter approach uses market principles while insisting that schools be nonsectarian and democratic. Many people, such as former President Bill Clinton, see charter schools, with their emphasis on autonomy and accountability, as a workable political compromise and an alternative to vouchers. Others, such as President George W. Bush, see charter schools as a way to improve schools without antagonizing the teachers union. Bush has made charter schools a major part of his No Child Left Behind Act. The recent reports showing charter schools not faring as well as traditional schools put the efficacy of charter schools into question and as well, the No Child Left Behind Act. The number one reason given for low performance was underfunding.

Where are charter schools?

In 1991, Minnesota adopted charter-school legislation to expand a longstanding program of public school choice and to stimulate broader system improvements. Since then, the charter concept has spread to 40 states and DC. State laws follow varied sets of key organizing principles based on Ted Kolderie's recommendations for Minnesota, American Federation of Teachers guidelines, and/or federal charter-school legislation (U.S. Department of Education). Principles govern sponsorship, number of schools, regulatory waivers, degree of fiscal/legal autonomy, and performance expectations.

Current laws have been characterized as either strong or weak. Strong-law states mandate considerable autonomy from local labor-management agreements, allow multiple charter-granting agencies, and allocate a level of funding consistent with the statewide per pupil average. Arizona's 1994 law is the strongest, with multiple charter-granting agencies, freedom from local labor contracts, and large numbers of charters permitted.

41 U.S. states have Charter-school laws. The vast majority of charter schools (more than 70 percent) are found in states with the strongest laws: Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Carolina (Charter School Laws Across the States (, Center for Education Reform). Missing image
Image:Charter schools.gif


Early promise

Evidence on the growth and outcomes of this relatively new movement has started to come in. The U.S. Department of Education's First Year Report, part of a four-year national study on charters, is based on interviews of 225 charter schools in 10 states (1997). Charters tend to be small (fewer than 200 students) and represent primarily new schools, though some schools had converted to charter status. Charter schools often tend to exist in urban locations, rather than rural.

This study found enormous variation among states. Charter schools tended to be somewhat more racially diverse, and to enroll slightly fewer students with special needs and limited-English-proficient students than the average schools in their state. The most common reasons for founding charters were to pursue an educational vision and gain autonomy.

"Charter schools are havens for children who had bad educational experiences elsewhere," according to a Hudson Institute survey of students, teachers, and parents from fifty charters in ten states. More than 60 percent of the parents said charter schools are better than their children's previous schools in terms of teaching quality, individual attention from teachers, curriculum, discipline, parent involvement, and academic standards. Most teachers reported feeling empowered and professionally fulfilled (Vanourek and others 1997).

Recent Findings

On August 16, 2004, the Department of Education released a great number of reports without public announcement. Buried in the mountains of data was the first national comparison of test scores among children in charter schools and regular public schools. These results, from a study of 6000 4th grade pupils in 2003, showed charter school students performing worse in both mathematics and reading than comparable students in regular public schools. This study may have been buried to avoid negative publicity, since the Bush administration has been a strong supporter of charter schools.

These results were the most comprehensive so far, holding constant such factors as race, neighborhood, and income. Many conservative foundations had requested the study, hoping that the results would show gains for charter schools. Chester Finn, the president of one such foundation, admitted "The scores are low, dismayingly low." (New York Times, August 17, 2004 ( One possible explanation is that enrollment in charter schools selects for students who were having academic trouble. A number of promintent research experts called into question the usefulness of the findings and the largely unrigorous media coverage they received (Advertisement in the New York Times (, August 2004).

At a December 2004 workshop held by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) to discuss the findings of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) pilot study on charter schools, government officials urged charter opponents and proponents alike to use caution in making "sweeping" conclusions from the NAEP report. NAGB Chairman Darvin Winick called attention to what he called the "fine print" of the study - that is, "one snapshot in time cannot determine the achievement of students."

A Harvard study ( also released in December 2004 that included 99 percent of all elementary charter school students found that they performed favorably in both math and reading compared to similar students in nearby conventional public schools, and that the longer the charter school had been in operation, the more favorably its students compared.

Other Problems

Nearly all charter schools face implementation obstacles, but newly created schools are most vulnerable. Most new charters are plagued by resource limitations, particularly inadequate startup funds.

Although charter advocates recommend the schools control all per-pupil funds, in reality they rarely receive as much funding as other public schools. They generally lack access to funding for facilities and special program funds distributed on a district basis (Bierlein and Bateman 1996). Sometimes private businesses and foundations, such as the Ameritech Corporation in Michigan and the Annenburg Fund in California, provide support (Jenkins and Dow). Congress and the President allocated $80 million to support charter-school activities in fiscal year 1998, up from $51 million in 1997.

Charters sometimes face opposition from local boards, state education agencies, and unions. Many educators are concerned that charter schools might siphon off badly needed funds for regular schools. The American Federation of Teachers urges that charter schools adopt high standards, hire only certified teachers, and maintain teachers' collective-bargaining rights. Also, some charters feel they face unwieldy regulatory barriers.

According to Bierlein and Bateman, the odds are stacked against charter schools. There may be too few strong-law states to make a significant difference. Educators who are motivated enough to create and manage charter schools could easily be burnt out by a process that demands increased accountability while providing little professional assistance.

Policy and practice

As more states join the movement, there is increasing speculation about upcoming legislation. In an innovation-diffusion study surveying education policy experts in fifty states, Michael Mintrom and Sandra Vergari (1997) found that charter legislation is more readily considered in states with a policy entrepreneur, poor test scores, Republican legislative control, and proximity to other charter-law states. Legislative enthusiasm, gubernatorial support, interactions with national authorities, and use of permissive charter-law models increase the chances for adopting stronger laws. Seeking union support and using restrictive models presage adoption of weaker laws.

The threat of vouchers, wavering support for public education, and bipartisan support for charters has led some unions to start charters themselves. Several AFT chapters, such as those in Houston and Dallas, have themselves started charters. The National Education Association has allocated $1.5 million to help members start charter schools. Charters offer teachers a brand of empowerment, employee ownership, and governance that might be enhanced by union assistance (Nathan).

Over two dozen private management companies are scrambling to increase their 10 percent share of a "more hospitable and entrepreneurial market" (Stecklow 1997). Boston-based Advantage Schools Inc. has contracted to run charter schools in New Jersey, Arizona, and North Carolina. The Education Development Corporation was planning in the summer of 1997 to manage nine nonsectarian charter schools in Michigan, using cost-effective measures employed in Christian schools.

Professor Frank Smith, of Columbia University Teachers College, sees the charter-school movement as a chance to involve entire communities in redesigning all schools and converting them to "client-centered, learning cultures" (1997). He favors the Advocacy Center Design process used by state-appointed Superintendent Laval Wilson to transform four failing New Jersey schools. Building stronger communities via newly designed institutions may prove more productive than charters' typical "free-the-teacher-and-parent" approach.

Charter schools might also benefit by adopting research-based schooling models, such as Accelerated Schools and the Success For All Program, and by emulating successful programs in charter or "grant-maintained" schools in England, Canada, and New Zealand.

President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act also promotes charter schools. Is it as yet unclear whether recent test results will affect the enacting of future legislation. A Pennsylvania legislator who voted to create charter schools, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said that "Charter schools offer increased flexibility to parents and administrators, but at a cost of reduced job security to school personnel. The evidence to date shows that the higher turnover of staff undermines school performance more than it enhances it, and that the problems of urban education are far too great for enhanced managerial authority to solve in the absence of far greater resources of staff, technology, and state of the art buildings."


Allen, Jeanne, and Anna Varghese Marcucio, "Charter School Laws Across the States: Ranking and Scorecard, 8th Edition." Washington D.C.: Center for Education Reform, 2004.

American Federation of Teachers. CHARTER SCHOOLS: DO THEY MEASURE UP? Washington, D.C.: Author, 1996. 68 pages.

Bierlein, Louann, and Mark Bateman. "Charter Schools v. the Status Quo: Which Will Succeed?" INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL REFORM 5, 2 (April 1996): 159–68. EJ 525 971.

Budde, Ray. "The Evolution of the Charter Concept." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 78, 1 (September 1996): 72–73. EJ 530 653.


Jenkins, John, and Jeffrey L. Dow. "A Primer on Charter Schools." INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL REFORM, 5, 2 (April 1996): 224–27. EJ 525 978.

Mintrom, Michael, and Sandra Vergari. "Political Factors Shaping Charter School Laws." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (Chicago, March 24, 1997). 46 pages. ED 407 708.

Nathan, Joe. CHARTER SCHOOLS: CREATING HOPE AND OPPORTUNITY FOR AMERICAN EDUCATION. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1996. 249 pages. ED 410 657.

Smith, Frank L. "Guidance for the Charter Bound." THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR 54, 7 (August 1997): 18–22. EJ 548 963.

Stecklow, Steve. "Businesses Scramble to Run Charter Schools." THE WALL STREET JOURNAL 137, 37 (August 21, 1997): B1, B8.

U.S. Department of Education. A STUDY ON CHARTER SCHOOLS: FIRST YEAR REPORT. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1997. 74 pages. ED 409 620.

Vanourek, Gregg and others. "Charter Schools as Seen by Those Who Know Them Best: Students, Teachers, and Parents." Washington, D.C.: Hudson Institute, 1997. 12 pages. ED 409 650.

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