Minnesota enacted the United States' first charter school law in June of 1991 and established the first official charter school in September of 1992. In the two decades following these landmark events, charter schools have expanded rapidly in the U.S., and now serve over two million students in more than 5,600 schools. Charter schools have been deemed an "unqualified success" simply by sheer growth; yet despite this success, they are an increasingly complicated and provocative topic in education reform.
The charter school concept can be traced back to 1974, when University of Massachusetts (Amherst) Professor Ray Budde proposed restructuring failing school districts with the option for "charters" between teachers and their school board. Budde's novel idea was outlined in his book, Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts, and was later elaborated upon by Albert Shanker in a speech to the National Press Club in 1988.
As the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Shanker's early advocacy for charters may seem surprising, since today’s charter schools and teachers' unions generally have conflicting agendas. Shanker originally envisioned charter schools as a collaborative effort between school districts and unions. He later withdrew his support for them when he perceived that the unions were being excluded from the process.
Today's charter schools are essentially public schools that receive government funding but enjoy more autonomy from state and district regulations. The schools sign a contract ("charter") with an authorizer, and are bound to follow the accountability measures stipulated by the contract. The laws conditioning charter schools vary by state.
The authorizer of a charter school - which can be a private, nonprofit, or public entity - holds it accountable to its contract. It is believed that the school's innovative sovereignty will result in higher performance and enrollment. If charter schools fail to meet these goals, however, the authorizer can terminate the contract.
Charter schools also aim to raise the education bar by introducing competition into the public sector. Research suggests that when public schools face competition from nearby charters, public school students’ academic achievement increases, albeit minimally.
Currently, there are only nine states without charter laws. Yet despite growing popularity, charter schools are proving difficult to evaluate. This is largely because of the various laws and policies that govern charter schools - some are very effective, while others are not. These varying statistics give both advocates and adversaries relevant arguments, and the debate largely rages over the efficacy and fairness of charter schools.
To support their position, proponents point to data suggesting that charter school students produce better academic results than their traditional public school counterparts. Others note that charter schools are successfully striving to overcome the achievement gap, as evidenced in one of Minnesota's most successful charter schools, Hiawatha Leadership Academy. High levels of parental and student satisfaction and lack of teacher union involvement are also strong points in the eyes of charter school supporters.
Opponents, however, fear that charter schools are fueling segregation and harming public schools by isolating lower performing students. Some question whether or not charter schools employ experienced and capable teachers. Opponents also argue that the majority of charter schools evidence only minimal achievement gains, if any at all. The 15% charter school closure rate also raises concerns about the effectiveness of charter schools, and it appears that some under-performing charter schools remain open.
Despite these conflicting views, charter school demand has continued, fueled by parental unhappiness with educational achievement and available alternatives. Core to the charter school movement is the belief that parents should be able to choose the appropriate school for their children, especially given the perceived weakness of today's public schools. In fact, some activists now insist that parents should have a right to transform a failing public school into a charter school through a "parent trigger" law. This law has been recently highlighted in the controversial movie "Won't Back Down."
The deliberation over charter schools raises some of the issues within the more general school choice discussion, including achievement discrepancies, taxpayer implications, e-learning options, teacher union controls, appropriateness of religious affiliations, and self-segregation of the most motivated students. This topic examines these issues while also shedding light on the history and details of charter schools.