Charter schools are public schools of choice operating with a charter issued under state law defining their terms and granting greater autonomy from state and local rules applicable to traditional schools. Some are created or run by community-based and other nonprofit organizations, parents, teachers, existing districts and schools, or networks of educational management or charter management organizations (including for-profit companies). Support for charters has been fueled by the hope that they would create options for parents, foster innovation to improve quality, and spur competition.
Charter school enrollment more than tripled between 1999 and 2009. In 2011–12, it increased 13 percent over the previous year. However, students in charter schools still constitute less than 3 percent of total public school enrollment, and the more than 5,000 charter schools comprise about 5 percent of all public schools. A small but rapidly growing number are virtual, online schools.
By 2008–09, 55 percent of charter schools were in cities, compared to 25 percent of traditional schools. And 30 percent of charter schools had enrollments in which over 75 percent of the students were from low-income families (up from 13 percent a decade earlier). [There is evidence of at least some increases in racial isolation after accounting for their geographic concentration.]
Students with disabilities have grown to 11.9 percent of charter school enrollment (roughly comparable to traditional schools), although there is evidence of underserving students with more significant disabilities, along with evidence and complaints regarding the screening out of students with disabilities despite requirements for nondiscrimination and random selection among students in oversubscribed schools. As with most things that can be said about charters, aggregate enrollment figures mask major variation—including a few places where charter schools are far more dominant: over 70 percent of public school enrollment in New Orleans; 40 percent in Washington, D.C.; and 12 percent across Arizona.
Growth has been encouraged by federal policy and funding (and setting the definition and conditions for charter schools) beginning with the 1994 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and continued in the 2001 No Child Left Behind version of ESEA. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) federal stimulus act brought additional charter funds. Equally significant, to compete for the Race to the Top funds that started with ARRA, states had to agree to provide equitable funding and facility support for charters and to lift state caps on the number of charter schools. Some low-performing traditional schools have been reconstituted as charters.
Charter schools are eligible for other federal funds on the same basis as other public schools and are bound by the same requirements—for example, under Title I of ESEA (the current version of which is No Child Left Behind), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination by race, national origin, disability, or gender (Title VI, Section 504, and Title IX). Thus, while charter schools are by definition exempted from some state or local rules inhibiting flexible operation, they are not exempted from federal education law requirements by virtue of their charter status. But administration of these requirements does vary based on the governance charter arrangements within each state. About 40 percent of all charter schools are part of an existing school district (local educational agency (LEA)), while 60 percent operate as their own freestanding LEA (or sometimes as a cluster of related charters). Thus, the extensive oversight and support responsibilities set out for school districts in federal program law (e.g., under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Title I) may be placed upon a regular district or upon the charter itself. Researchers have found that understanding of and capacity for fulfilling these responsibilities under IDEA generally tend to be lower in charters operating as autonomous districts.
Do charter schools outperform traditional public schools? Research to date is limited, inconsistent, and inconclusive. A 2009 Stanford study of matched students found that 17 percent of charters did better, 46 percent about the same, and 37 percent worse than their traditional school counterparts; outcomes were modestly better for low-income students and English-language learners, modestly worse for African Americans and Latinos, and worse in the first year of charter enrollment but better thereafter. Similarly, fall 2011 National Council for Education Statistics data showed no overall difference in academic progress, with significant negative impact on math scores in charters serving more advantaged students but positive impact in charters serving more low-income or low-achieving students. Inaccurate counting of students with disabilities and English-language learners makes drawing conclusions about those groups difficult.
Related to these findings, research to date shows relatively few classroom innovations or departures from traditional approaches, very small and mixed competitive effects, parent choices uninformed by academic performance, little scaling up by drawing on successful charter practices, and limited oversight of underperforming schools. At the same time, the aggregate findings on performance and practice do not gainsay those individual charter schools with major innovations and exemplary results. Neither the aggregate trends nor the exceptions can be ignored. So, for both the individual family and the larger policy perspective, whether or not a charter school is a better option than the traditional local public school requires looking at the particulars—the actual practices that affect educational quality and equity.