Almost 1,700 charter schools now operate in the United States, enrolling 300,000 youngsters. In the District of Columbia and Trenton, 10 percent of all schoolchildren attend them. In Kansas City, it's 13 percent.
A decade ago, nobody had heard of a charter school. Today, people such as National Urban League president Hugh Price and "reinventing government" guru David Osborne, even mainline groups such as the Education Commission of the States, talk about the day when every school will have a charter.
What Is a Charter?
What exactly is a charter school? It's an autonomously operated public school, freed from most government regulation, that enrolls children who want to attend it but is open to all. It is paid for with tax dollars and accountable to a duly constituted public body, typically a state or local school board.
A charter school has a specific period of time–usually five years–in which to produce results or risk not having its charter renewed. A charter school is accountable to the public body that authorized it as well as the families that enroll their kids in it. That's why some fifty-nine charter schools (4 percent) have already closed or been shut. How many public school systems can you point to where such a fate has befallen failing schools?
More than four hundred charter schools opened in the past year alone. Thirty-seven states now have charter laws. As expected, however, the defenders of the education status quo–the teacher unions above all–are doing their utmost to halt this bandwagon.
The unions' hostility is understandable. Autonomous schools pose a threat to their monopoly. But it's ironic when we recall that the charter school idea was first proposed by Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers.
How are these schools doing? Most of the achievement data available today are state-specific and mixed. But their clients seem pleased with what they're getting. Seventy percent of charter schools have waiting lists.
Critics predicted that charters would skim the ablest and most fortunate kids, but that's not happening. Low-income and minority kids are at least as well represented in these schools as in regular public schools, as are youngsters with limited English proficiency.
A Brave New World?
Where is this headed? Nobody can be sure. The financial, regulatory, and organizational obstacles that stand in the path of would-be charter starters means that it takes extraordinary commitment to succeed. For example, most states provide charters with no capital funding and only about 80 percent of the per-pupil operating budgets enjoyed by conventional public schools.
Although charter schools encounter serious start-up problems, they may be harbingers of tomorrow's brand of public education. Instead of vast government-run bureaucracies, public schools could be run by teams of teachers or parents, by community organizations, even private firms. It's an exciting time for American public education, with immense potential for the reforms our communities need and our children have been waiting for.