City Academy High School in St. Paul, Minnesota celebrates a landmark event in September 2017: twenty-five years as the nation’s first charter school.
Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia contain some 7,000 of these independently operated public schools, serving nearly three million students. In fact, charters account for the entire growth in U.S. K–12 public school enrollments since 2006.
While these schools enroll barely 6% of all public-school pupils, 17 districts have more than 30% of their students attending charters and six have at least 40% in these schools. These schools typically operate, however, with about 28% less per pupil in weighted funding than their district counterparts. Averaged nationally, that’s a $3,800 gap per pupil. Many charters get little or no support for facilities.
School board members, superintendents and others have different reactions to chartering, ranging from strong enthusiasm to deep hostility. But confusion abounds among educators and the broader public about how these independent public schools relate to district school improvement efforts.
There are at least three ways in which chartering is “…about system reform … a way for the state to cause the district system to improve,” as charter theorist Ted Kolderie described in 1996. Charters can be research and development (R&D) laboratories for districts; competitors to districts; and potential replacements for districts.
The R&D Approach
Charters can be a district’s laboratory for testing different approaches and ideas that could be transferred to, or replicated more broadly, in district schools. This could involve improved approaches to assessment and curriculum. It could also involve institutional or organizational innovations such as changed forms of governance that give more site-based freedom over budgets and personnel to other district schools, based on successful experiments with charters.
Many trace the R&D approach to the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who described his ideas in a 1988 address to the National Press Club, followed by a New York Times column entitled “A Charter for Change.”
The clearest, sizable example of a district employing chartering as R&D applied to broader school innovation is Denver Public Schools, which shaped its system into a “portfolio district.” This approach preserves an elected school board but outsources some school operations, including 54 largely independent charters and 36 less autonomous “innovation schools.”
The seven-member school board hires and fires the superintendent and also authorizes charters. Denver is a story of forward-looking superintendents and boards incorporating charters into a comprehensive system, learning, from them, how to free other schools from micromanagement and give families more quality choices.
Yet Denver has only just begun. Ninety-five schools still operate the traditional way – and some of their charters barely participate in the “portfolio.” Chartering, when undertaken by a traditional district, must still navigate the clash between an ingrained district management culture and the dynamics associated with innovation.
It is not yet clear how fully those two approaches to public education are reconciled. But Denver’s journey has shown real, if modest, results. Over the past decade, the number of students scoring at the proficient level or better rose 15%, with achievement slightly superior in the city’s charter schools.
The Competitive Approach
Though it’s more combative and less collegial, charters also advance district reform by competing with the traditional system, seeking students who may leave the district and bring some or all their public funding to their charters. The assumption here is that districts will respond positively by improving their offerings and enhancing school quality.
But a negative response is also possible. States and districts can (and do) find various ways to limit competition and make life difficult for charters. For example, a charter law may limit the number of students who attend charters or the number of new schools allowed.
The rationale for reform-via-competition has origins on both the political right and left. In 1962, conservative economist Milton Friedman described how competitive market forces would strengthen educational quality, efficiency and productivity. From the left, Shanker’s 1998 New York Times piece describes a quasi-marketplace where, “Parents could choose which charter school to send their children to, thus fostering competition.”
The charter sector in Washington, D.C. is now large enough to rival and compete with the traditional district. Nearly half of all public-school pupils in D.C. attend charters schools, creating a mixed market of charter and district choices for families. Mayor Muriel Bowser presides over this dual system, consisting of the traditional system run by a chancellor and the charter sector answerable to the Public Charter School Board.
By 2015–16, total enrollment in D.C.’s public schools rose to 87,443, with nearly 47% of students in charters. There were 112 charters and 111 district schools. Student test results have improved in both sectors, with charter gains surpassing those of district schools.
David Osborne, senior fellow at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, completed an analysis of D.C.’s two sectors called A Tale of Two Systems. It documented how “…competition between the two sectors…” led the district sector to emulate charters in many ways.
This competition “…pushed both to improve [both sectors leading to] a surprising amount of collaboration between the two sectors,” the analysis said. A highlight of this cooperation is My School DC, a program making it easier for district and charter school parents to choose from the many D.C. school options available to them through a common lottery application system.
The Replacement Approach
Finally, the replacement approach sees charters as the primary vehicle for delivering public education in a community. It envisions a school turnaround strategy overseen by a new state-initiated governance structure. It not so much improves the district as replaces it, making the procedure more akin to a full heart transplant rather than a repair of some part of the heart.
That organizational structure has a board of overseers setting general policy; defining the results or outcomes expected from schools; contracting with organizations to run schools; and monitoring performance. Schools are opened and closed as necessary.
There are several examples of this approach underway today. New Orleans is the premier story today, the most thoroughly evolved example of an alternative school transformation and governance structure based on chartering.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana lawmakers had created a “Recovery School District” (RSD) to revive the state’s worst schools, most in New Orleans. After the deadly storm, lawmakers made RSD the instrument for totally overhauling public education in the Big Easy.
As of 2014–15, the RSD’s New Orleans operation was entirely charter, overseeing 57 campuses with more than 29,000 pupils, some 92% of the city’s public school population. The other 8% attend schools run by a vestige of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). Recent legislation returns charters to OPSB oversight, with charters keeping their crucial operating autonomy and the remaining traditional schools converting into charters.
The results for students have been impressive. Students scoring at or above grade level on state tests doubled from 31% in 2004 to 62% in 2014. The percentage of pupils attending schools in the bottom 10th statewide shrank dramatically from 60 to 13. The on-time four-year graduation rate rose from 54% to 73%.
Doing Things Better
In all three approaches, chartering magnified the capacity of a challenged local public-education delivery system to do things better, while furthering structural innovation within public education. In Denver, the changes precipitated by the R&D approach were mostly part of a regularly modified district strategic plan built on state policy changes. In D.C., a dual structure gradually emerged featuring two kinds of public schools that cohabit, compete, strengthen and embolden each other, both operating under the mayor’s supervision. In New Orleans, the impetus for change (besides Katrina) was intervention and structural creativity by the state. It is hard to imagine that this system would have grown from local roots.
In none of these cities is every school a source of quality learning today. But more schools in each of these cities are doing right by their students – and many kids are better served by today’s restructured system than when there was no alternatives to the traditional arrangement. After just 25 years, the charter sector is more than a fountain of choices for 6% of America’s pupil population. It’s a governance revolution, too.
One lesson is especially salient: No matter how hard some search for a single “founding myth” for charter schooling, there was never a unique story line. Chartering has not been a single experiment or the product of a single vision, theory or doctrine. Rather, it’s a fine illustration of what Justice Brandeis termed states functioning as “laboratories of democracy”—and perhaps also of what Daniel P. Moynihan dubbed “maximum feasible misunderstanding.