LANDSCAPE OF CHARTER SCHOOLS IN THE UNITED STATES
With more than 3.7 million students currently enrolled in charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia, charter schools represent the largest experiment in public school innovation in the nation’s history, the basis of our educational study.
The fundamental bargain of public charter schools — “flexibility for accountability” — was embedded in the school’s first charter and in the more than 7,800 public charter schools that came after.
Successful schools deliver critical proof points of ways to improve outcomes for students. The diversity of schools in our educational study illuminates an essential feature of the charter governance framework: Success is attainable via many paths. This policy of possibility allows schools and networks the discretion to build and deliver curriculum and instruction that supports student achievement and is responsive to local needs. It has been 30 years since the City Academy Charter School opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992.
Enabling legislation allows charter school founders and operators to design and tailor organizational structures, staffing and instructional approaches to provide their students with an alternative to local district schools. They pursue different missions, such as STEAM, college prep, social justice or new technologies. They can be small or large, operating as single schools or in school networks. Some charter schools outsource some or all of their operations to outside vendors. Some charter schools mirror traditional public school (TPS) grade level or grade band configurations, and others serve students K–12 in one school. Some charter schools own and operate their facilities; some are tenants of local school districts or rent space from commercial landlords.
Charter schools operate under governing boards separate from local district school boards. Following the “flexibility for accountability” construct, charter schools must undergo periodic accountability reviews to remain open and in good standing in exchange for discretion in school design and operation. These accountability reviews weigh the school’s operational and fiscal health and student academic performance.
Thirty-seven states allow multiple schools to be held and operated under a common management structure known as charter networks or charter management organizations (CMOs). This option has increased the number of available charter school seats yet raises questions of scalability and quality. This educational study examines these questions and the performance of charter schools and CMOs against the legislative and regulatory incentives in place.