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Public charter schools have experienced relatively rapid growth. Since 1992, when the first charter school opened, over 4,000 charters have opened their doors to underserved students. Although charters still constitute just a small percent of public schools and public school students, considering the intense opposition to charters from education interest groups, this rapid growth is substantial. But rapid growth masks the stalemated political debate over charter schools that exists in many states, particularly those states with caps on the number of charter schools that can open.
Today, 25 states and the District of Columbia restrict the growth of charter schools in some fashion. (See Appendix.) Some states place restrictions on individual authorizers; others limit the number of charter schools allowed to open. And, not surprisingly, in these states charter school opponents—generally teachers unions and school administrators—and charter school supporters go back and forth, arguing whether or not to have a cap or how many schools should be allowed under existing caps.
But as these opposing sides tirelessly debate charter caps, parents are denied good public education opportunities in their communities. In New York, for instance, the debate over charter schools for years largely centered on whether to lift the cap of 100 schools, focusing little attention on broader issues of charter school policy. And while the Legislature debated the cap, 12,000 students were on waiting lists to attend existing public charter schools. In Illinois 10,000 are on waiting lists, and in Massachusetts, 16,000.
One might be willing to accept this pent-up demand if charter school caps, or the debate over them, were addressing the greater concern of charter school quality. But this is not the case. Statutory caps as they exist now are too blunt a policy instrument to sufficiently address quality. They fail to differentiate between good schools and lousy schools and between successful charter school authorizers and those with a poor track record of running charter schools. And, all the while, they limit public schooling options and choices for parents.
In all the attention to existing charter school caps, key questions are being left almost entirely unaddressed: What's the best way to encourage and ensure charter school quality? What's the most effective way to give parents and students more options within public education? Thus, instead of today's approach to charter school caps, policymakers should embrace "Smart Charter School Caps," which sensibly manage the growth of charter schools, while accelerating the supply of outstanding schools and fostering quality overall.
Smart Charter School Caps, by focusing on growth and quality, offer a political and substantive "grand bargain" to move beyond today's stalemated political debate. The experience of the past 15 years of charter schooling offers policymakers clear lessons and the opportunity to design more effective policies. This policy brief discusses charter schooling today and how smart charter caps would help states expand high-quality schooling options for underserved students.
This research was funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author alone and do not represent the opinions of the foundation.
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