U.S. Charters: A Snapshot
You may be surprised to learn that more than two million students are enrolled at about 5,700 charter schools throughout the U.S. What's as impressive is that that figure was exactly zero prior to the early 1990s. The "Charter Movement" is growing.
Charter schools have their roots in a number of other educational reform ideas, from alternative schools, to site-based management, magnet schools, public school choice, privatization, and community-parental empowerment. The term "charter" may have originated in the 1970s when New England educator Ray Budde suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or "charters" by their local school boards to explore new approaches. In the late 1980s, Philadelphia started a number of schools-within-schools and called them "charters." Some of them were schools of choice. The idea was further refined in Minnesota where charter schools were developed according to three basic values: opportunity, choice, and responsibility for results.
In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter-school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2003 that number increased to 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.
Charter schools are one of the fastest growing innovations in education policy, enjoying broad bipartisan support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education. In his 1997 State of the Union Address, former President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2002. In 2002, President Bush called for $200 million to support charter schools. His proposed budget called for another $100 million for a new Credit Enhancement for Charter Schools Facilities Program.
How Are Charters Doing Nationally?
This is the area in which current research is centered, and where more data is needed. Many schools have already been successful enough to have their charters renewed, which means their sponsors were satisfied that they met the original goals of their charter. Some charters have been revoked due to lack of proper financial management or lack of achievement. What has been consistent, though, is that charter schools have shown improvement in both parent and student satisfaction, and in the areas of innovation in technology, curriculum, assessment, and governance.
What We Know About How Charters Operate
While charter schools vary much from state to state, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood, many share the following characteristics:
- Charter schools are newly created, while some are converted from existing schools.
Most charter schools are small schools (median enrollment is 242 students, compared with 539 in traditional public schools).
They serve many different communities with a wide variety of curriculum and instructional practices.
They have atypical grade configurations (K-3, K-8).
Most charter schools provide one or more non-instructional services, such as health, social services, or extended day care.