Charter Schools: Expanding Educational Opportunity for All

By Nina Rees for Heritage Foundation
President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the nation’s first charter school law. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, parents, teachers, and political leaders were looking for new ways to spur improvements in public education and empower parents. Among those leaders was the American Federation of Teachers’ Al Shanker and education professor Ray Budde. They developed the idea of a charter school: a free public school in which educators could try innovative approaches to teaching while meeting clear performance targets.

Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, unleashing a bipartisan movement that has given parents in 43 states and the District of Columbia the opportunity to choose a high-quality public school for their children.
Charter schools now serve 6 percent of all public school students. Enrollment has grown sixfold in the past 15 years. During the 2015–16 school year, more than 400 new charter public schools opened, serving an estimated 250,000 additional students. More than 6,800 charter public schools are now enrolling an estimated 2.9 million students throughout the country.

Twenty-seven states have at least 50 charter public schools, and nearly 20 states have 100 or more. Much of this growth has been concentrated in urban areas, where the demand for better school options is greatest. In New Orleans, nearly every student attends a charter school, and in another five major U.S. cities, including our nation’s capital, 40 percent or more of students are enrolled in charter public schools.

Parents are choosing charter schools because they see the results and hear about success from other parents who have made a similar choice. Last year, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students enrolled in urban charter schools gained 40 additional days of learning in mathematics and 28 additional days in reading compared to their peers in district-run schools. Moreover, the longer a student attends an urban charter school, the greater the gains. Throughout the country, there are charter schools with predominantly low-income and minority student bodies that are sending nearly all of their students to college. In many communities, these schools are also playing a critical role in revitalizing the neighborhoods they serve.

Charter schools’ success is rooted in the movement’s commitment to quality. If a charter school should fail to make the grade, parents can vote with their feet. Moreover, charter school authorizers (the entities charged with overseeing charter schools) are empowered to do something rarely done by school districts: close poorly performing schools. Last year, 271 charter schools ceased operations — evidence that the movement is serious about accountability.

Parental demand for strong educational options is consistently high, and on current trends, the number of students attending charter schools would double in five years. Yet demand continues to outpace availability, and hundreds of thousands of parents who would like to choose a charter school end up on waiting lists. Today, over a million student names are on charter school wait lists.

The opportunity for a better life is what drives all parents to seek the best schools for their children. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and our allies across America support the replication and expansion of high-quality charter schools so that all students have the opportunity to attend a school that gives them a foundation for lifelong success. The continued annual growth in the numbers of charter schools and charter school students is positive evidence of a strong and vibrant movement — and of the power of school choice to expand educational opportunity in every community where it is offered.

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