Charter Schools

Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools of choice that have greater autonomy than traditional public schools. In exchange for this increased autonomy, charter schools are held accountable for improving student achievement and meeting other provisions of their charters. Charter schools are most often new schools that were not in existence before the charter was granted; it is also common for a traditional public or private school to convert to charter school status. This entry describes the relatively recent origin of charter schools and their operational characteristics and offers a brief discussion of their record so far.

Origin and Operation

There are significant variations in charter schools across states, because the state laws that dictate most aspects of charter schools, including funding, student and staff recruitment, and charter attainment status, differ. Although the details vary by state, some generalizations can be made about charter schools. For example, charter schools are not typically confined to the constraints of traditional public school requirements such as certain bureaucratic and union rules. In some states, such flexibility includes the freedom to hire teachers, typically those lacking state certification, based on their own standards and to adopt specific curricula. Some charter schools may even create their own calendars or length of school days.

The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota, and the first charter school was established there in 1992. By 1995, an addition 18 states had passed charter school legislation. From 1991 to the present, the charter school movement has experienced tremendous growth. Today, it is estimated that there are nearly 3,600 charter schools, which enroll about 1.75% of public school students. There are currently over 1 million students attending charter schools. While 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have adopted charter school legislation, Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, and Texas have more than half of all charter schools. States with no charter school laws include Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. The median enrollment for a charter school is 242 students, while the median for traditional public schools is 539 students. Charter schools must have an open admissions process, and when more students apply than can be accommodated, officials typically rely on lotteries to select students randomly.

Functioning as public schools, operators of charter schools receive charters from public agencies, usually state or local school boards. Charters are performance contracts that establish each school while containing provisions related to financial plans, curriculum, and governance. The entities that issue charters, usually referred to as sponsors or authorizers, hold the charter school accountable for their performance. Charters are issued for defined limited terms of operation, usually from three to five years. As a result, if charter schools fail to meet the provisions of their charters, the sponsor may take steps to close them down. Indeed, it is much easier for sponsors to revoke the charters of charter schools than it is for authorities to close traditional public schools. Surprisingly, though, few charter school authorizers have revoked charters due to poor student achievement. Rather, closures have generally resulted from fiscal or managerial problems in the schools.

Charter schools vary greatly in terms of student achievement. This range in charter school quality can be explained by the lack of a uniform design among the large number of schools in operation. Nevertheless, the threat of competition from traditional public schools and other charter schools forces charter school sponsors and organizers to maintain high standards of accountability. While student achievement is a major accountability measure, there are few comprehensive studies involving student achievement in charter schools, and the data that do exist are both contradictory and inconclusive. Indeed, the political climate regarding charter schools is highly charged, making objective understanding of the research difficult.

Rationale and Outcomes

One of the main reasons for founding charter schools was to seek an alternative vision of schooling that could not be realized in the traditional public schools. The market metaphor for choice and competition has become an essential part of the charter school discussion. Free market advocates rationalize that charter schools will either stimulate weaker public schools to improve or will drive them out of the education arena through the process of market-based accountability. In so doing, charter schools may encourage systemic change by providing more educational choices, creating competitive market forces.

Some view the charter school movement as an answer to the nation’s education problems. Yet, others argue that charter schools will damage the public school system by diverting resources. While there is controversy surrounding the charter school movement, charter schools have attracted bipartisan support. Both Republicans and Democrats have backed the federal government in approving financial support for establishing charter schools and for acquiring operational facilities. Former President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by 2002. In 2002, Bush requested $200 million to support charter schools.

There is still much to be learned about charter schools. Charter schools are a fairly recent phenomenon; therefore, they are still in their early stages of implementation. As charter schools mature, current findings will be challenged and new questions will emerge. As such, at this time it is difficult to determine the impact charter schools have had on student achievement, equity, and other areas. Although charter schools are not necessarily the panacea that some had hoped for, they have had a significant impact on education, and future evolutions of the movement should continue to do so.

Suzanne E. Eckes

See also School Choice; Vouchers

Further Readings

  • Eckes, S., & Rapp, K. (2006). Charter schools: Trends and implications. In E. St. John (Ed.), Readings on education (Vol. 19, pp. 1–26). New York: AMS Press. 
  • Mead, J. (2003). Devilish details: Exploring features of charter school statues that blur the public/private distinction. Harvard Journal on Legislation, 40(2), 349–379.