The Charter School Movement

Charter Schools: A Viable Option for Families

 As most parents know, education is the key to getting ahead in life. Whether that means taking an accelerated academic path that involves college, graduate school and pursuing a professional occupation, taking a vocational path that involves learning a skill and pursuing a technical occupation, or finishing high school and striking off to start a business or join a company and get on-the-job experience, every path requires a solid early foundation in the basic academic areas.

Everyone needs a K-12 education that gives them a good chance at success: from welders to doctors, from computer engineers to aircraft mechanics, everyone needs to learn the fundamental concepts upon which all advancement is based, and everyone needs to learn to get along with other people and learn how to learn. Parents searching for the perfect school for their children outside the traditional public, private, or home-school paradigm, there’s another option out there: charter schools.

A Brief History of Charter Schools

Charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon in education in the U.S. The charter school concept is the brainchild of Ray Budde, a professor of education from the University of Massachusetts. In his 1974 paper “Education by Charter,” he defined charter schools as a possible way to save public education from the sometimes strict and “one-size-fits-all” rules and regulations set up by local school district bureaucracies. Budde proposed giving teachers more flexibility in how and what they taught. His idea was to cut out the middleman and allow teachers to be creative and innovative in the classroom as long as they could demonstrate that their students had actually learned the proper subject material. Budde saw this happening within existing schools: he envisioned the creation of schools within schools, which would operate under a different set of rules than the schools to which they were attached.

The move to create new schools with special missions was first proposed in 1988 by the president of the National Federation of Teachers (NFT), Al Shanker. Shanker built on Budde’s charter concept, and his ideas formed the foundation of how most charter schools operate today. According to the National Education Association’s Charter Schools 101, a charter school is “a privately managed, taxpayer-funded school exempted from some rules applicable to all other taxpayer-funded schools.” The first charter school based on this independent model was opened in Minnesota in 1992, and the charter school movement achieved nationwide, federally-approved status when the Office of Charter Schools Programs was established by the U.S. Senate as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1994.

Charter School Facts and Figures

For parents considering the charter school approach for their children and who want to know the lay of the land, here are some of the latest charter school statistics compiled by The National Center for Education Statistics and released in 2017:

Legal Status. 

As of the 2014-2015 school year, charter schools obtained official legal status in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The states that have not approved charter school laws are Kentucky, Alabama, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia. Since publication of the 2014-2015 data, several holdout states have passed charter legislation.

Kentucky passed charter legislation in 2017, and officials expect the first charter schools to open in the 2018-2019 school year.

Alabama passed charter legislation in 2015. Alabama currently has one charter school up and running, with two scheduled to open in 2018-2019 and two more in 2019-2020.

Montana still has no official state legislation regarding charter schools, but in 2016, the citizens of Bozeman voted to establish the first charter school in the state.

South Dakota law permits charter schools for native American students under special circumstances.

Number of Public Charter School in the U.S. 

Between the 2000 -2001 and 2015-2016 school years, the total number of public charter schools rose from 2,000 to 6,900.

Percentage of Public Schools in the U.S.

Between the 2000 -2001 and 2015-2016 school years, the percentage of public schools that are charter schools rose from 2 percent to 7 percent.

Charter School Enrollment.

Between the 2000 -2001 and 2015-2016 school years, the number of students enrolled in charter schools rose from 450,000 to 2.8 million students.

States With the Most Charter Schools and Charter School Students. 

In the 2015-2016 school year, California topped the list with 569,000 students enrolled in charter schools. That’s around 11.9 percent of the total California Public School population. The District of Columbia reported the greatest percentage of students enrolled in charter schools. D.C reported 49 percent of public school students – around 36,000 – attended charter schools. Arizona reported the second largest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools. Twenty-four percent of their total public school population – around 177,000 – is enrolled in charter schools.

Free and Reduced Lunch. 

Between the 1999-2000 and 2014-2015 school years, the percentage of students attending high-need charter schools rose from 14 percent to 36 percent. A high-need school is defined as any school where over 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch.

Choosing a Charter School: Things to Know

If you live in a state that has a charter school program and you’re researching educational options for your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or even the children of friends, there are a few important facts to understand.

Thing One.

Charter schools are real schools, funded with real taxpayer dollars. They have the freedom to teach academic subjects in almost any way they please. But all charter school students still have to meet traditional public school milestones. In almost every state, charter school curricula align with standards generally known as Common Core. Most charter school students take the same standardized tests that typical public school children take.

Thing Two.

Charter schools have to prove with real data that their students are performing up to standard. Also, theyhave to prove they’re actually learning what they need to learn. When applying for initial charters, charter committees have to support their intended programs with facts and figures. States don’t issuecharters willy-nilly. When a charter school applies for a renewal of their charter petition, the school has to prove why their program is working and why the state should continue to fund it with taxpayer dollars.

Thing Three.

Charter schools don’t take funding away from pre-existing public schools. In most states, the funding follows the student. If a student switches schools, the tax dollars allotted to that student go to the new school.

Thing Four

The question that parents and interested adults need to ask themselves is this: why a charter school? The answer is that charter schools are allowed to specialize in ways that typical public schools are not. Some charter schools have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) focus. Others have a performing arts focus. Or, they might have a career/vocational focus. Still others might have a community service/leadership focus. Depending on the relative strengths of the individual child, a charter school can offer options unavailable in public schools. Charter schools often include a more comprehensive support system for students with exceptional needs.

Find the Right Fit

As most parents understand, traditional public schools are not for everyone. Some children might need an advanced academic track that is unavailable in their local public school. Some kids might need more help than others with academic fundamentals. And some kids just don’t fit inside the box. No matter what the individual situation is, there’s a good chance you can find a school that meets your needs. And if you can’t find one, you can find a group of like-minded parentsand organize a charter committee. Then you can start a school yourself.