Charter schools turn 25 this year. Are they working the way people thought? That’s hard to say because there have always been multiple competing theories about how charter schools would lead to better educational outcomes. While those theories remain open to debate, the 25th anniversary provides an opportunity to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of charter schools.
Growth. During the 25 years since the opening of the first charter school, numerous other educational reforms have come and gone, while the number of charter schools continues to steadily increase.
From 2004 to 2014, the number of students in charter schools tripled, from 789,000 to 2.5 million, and shows no signs of slowing. Waiting lists number in the hundreds of thousands. Parents want more of these schools.
Innovation. Despite the criticism from many charter school opponents (and some proponents), charter schools have been fertile ground for innovation.
For families without access to high quality schools, longer school days and years are innovations. Better teacher induction and evaluation are innovations. Teacher compensation based on performance is an innovation. Blended learning is an innovation. Schools with clear, firm discipline are an innovation. The focus on college for low-income students of color is an innovation. Some people may not like these innovations—in fact many who work in school districts oppose them—but they are innovations nonetheless.
Urban Performance. While overall academic performance of charter schools has been mixed, it is clearly positive for students in urban settings—the very students who most need better educational opportunities.
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford found that the typical student in an urban charter school receives the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading. The results were found to be positive for nearly all student subgroups, but especially strong for students who are minority and in poverty.
Accountability. The charter school model is built on three pillars: choice, autonomy and accountability. The accountability pillar has been working, but not as well as it needs to. It is also facing bigger challenges in the future.
In 2012, my organization estimated that 1,000 charter schools were performing in the bottom 15 percent in their state and we launched the One Million Lives campaign to close them (and to open 2000 new, high performing schools). Our first two years of data show that we are on track to achieve that goal, but the chaos that has erupted around Common Core, standardized testing and state-driven accountability threatens that progress.
Oversight. Charter schools continue to face questions about financial management practices and the equitable treatment of students. Some for-profit management companies enrich themselves with real estate deals while some mom-and-pop charter schools have enriched their friends and family.
A handful of high-profile cases have lent credibility to accusations that charter schools counsel out difficult students. And the fact that many charter schools handle discipline and special education differently than district schools has led to more accusations of unfairness. It is difficult to separate perception from reality in many of these situations, but the perception does not look good.
One thing is clear, however: the agencies that authorize charter schools need to do better. Contracts between charter schools and authorizers need to set clear expectations on student admissions, special education, services for English-language Learners, discipline, expulsion, financial management, conflicts of interest and transparency. When these terms are not defined, problems result.
Virtual Schools. The number of charter schools that are 100-percent virtual is small, but they serve a relatively large number of students. Their performance has been abysmal. Many charter advocates, myself included, believe 100-percent virtual schools do not belong under the charter umbrella. While there are some children for whom virtual schools are appropriate, these schools should be approved, funded, operated and monitored in different ways than charter schools.
Charter schools continue to grow, innovate, and deliver a better education for urban students, but there are challenges ahead. Lawmakers, authorizers, advocates and charter schools themselves should use this 25th anniversary to resolve these challenges head on. If we do, charter schools can better fulfill their potential of providing millions of more children with a quality education.