A Sum Greater Than the Parts: What States Can Teach Each Other About Charter Schooling

Reports & Briefs | September 10, 2007
Related Issue(s): Charter Schools and Choice
Image of Report Cover for "A Sum Greater Than the Parts"

Fifteen years after the first public charter school opened in St. Paul, Minn., charter schools remain a powerful educational innovation. Charter schooling expands choices for students within the public system and provides more customized teaching and learning opportunities for teachers and students by allowing for greater variation in the kinds of schools that are available. At the same time, charter schools maintain core public education ideals, such as providing universal access for students and public oversight and accountability.

As independently operated public schools, charter schools offer educators increased freedom to design their own educational programs in return for heightened accountability for student performance. Unlike traditional public schools, charters that persistently fail to educate students can, and should, be shut down. As such, they provide a "third way" approach to public education—positioned between the status quo of limited choice and barriers to entry for new educational providers and free-market-oriented reforms, like vouchers, that increase competition but at the expense of public oversight or accountability.

Today, there are more than 4,000 charter schools serving more than 1 million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. That's barely 2 percent of all students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools. But this figure understates the impact of charter schools, which have become a significant part of the educational landscape in several states and cities. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that in six cities charter schools serve more than 20 percent of the students, and in 19 cities more than 10 percent of students are in charters.

Charter schools also have created space for innovative and successful educational models. Examples such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of schools that prepare disadvantaged youngsters to succeed in college, and the Achievement First network of high-performing schools in Connecticut and New York, challenge assumptions about what public education is and what urban schools can be expected to do.

But not all charter schools are successful. Too many fail to live up to the terms of their charter contracts or improve student achievement. And too often, poor-quality charters are allowed to remain open, although charter authorizers have closed down some popular but low-performing schools, such as the John A. Reisenbach Charter School in New York and SouthEast Academy in Washington, D.C.

Charter school success or failure is not simply a matter of chance. Both the existence and aggregate quality of charter schools in a state depend on the provisions of state charter school laws. These laws address a wide range of issues and vary from state to state. But the experiences of states with significant charter sectors, as well as those with innovative charter policies, provide important lessons for the charter school movement as a whole. In too many instances, charter schooling has been hobbled by the twin demons of poor performance and political opposition. The presence of too many low-quality charter schools casts a negative light on the entire movement, buttressing the case of the powerful interests that oppose charter schools and making it hard to enact legislative and regulatory changes that would expand opportunities for charter school growth or help improve quality. Yet, these laws are the key policy lever for improving both the quality and supply of charter schools.

Based on a series of state and city case studies published by the Progressive Policy Institute and Education Sector, this report summarizes states' experiences with charter schooling, particularly the role of state charter school laws in shaping a state's charter sector. We identify and examine the areas of the law that have the greatest impact on the characteristics and quality of a state's charter sector and propose what we have found to be the necessary legislative and regulatory changes to promote a charter sector's quality and growth. We also look beyond state charter school laws to how a state's regulatory, political, and educational climate also shapes its charter sector.

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 authors alone and do not represent the opinions of the foundation.