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Public Charter Schools Defined

Charter schools are public schools that are permitted through state law to operate outside of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. In exchange for greater autonomy, charter schools agree to be held accountable for academic achievement. The expectation is that charter schools will meet the terms of their charter or face closure by their authorizing bodies. Funding for charter schools is determined at a state level. Typically, schools receive funding based on their enrollment, commonly called “per pupil" with additional funding for special education and other populations.

Begun as an experiment in Minnesota in 1991, charter schools were created to address the decline in performance of public schools. Since the publication of the landmark study A Nation At Risk in 1983, education reformers have struggled to address what the report cites as “disturbing inadequacies" in our public school system that threaten to erode the foundations of American society. Further, despite the promise of school desegregation, since Brown vs. The Board of Education, the “achievement gap” between white and minority students has remained a persistent problem. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, in 2000, 70 percent of African American students scored below “basic,” the lowest level of proficiency, in math compared to 58 percent of Hispanic students, 29 percent of white students, and 26 percent of Asian American students. In reading, 48 percent of African American students scored below basic compared to 41 percent of Hispanic students, 28 percent of Asian American students, and 22 percent of white students (NCES 2007).

While many worthy experiments have been undertaken to spark changes in public school performance, no other innovation has been as widespread as the creation of charter schools. As of September 2006, forty states and the District of Columbia have charter laws. Figure 4.1 shows the pace of charter law adoption since 1991. Approximately four thousand schools operate across the United States (Figure 4.2) with enrollment of over 1.1 million children (Figure 4.3) (Center for Education Reform 2007).

Many feared that charter schools would create chasms in public education because charters would “cream" affluent, white students from the traditional system. On the contrary, the National Charter School Research Project concluded that “nationally, charter schools serve a larger proportion of minority and low-income students than is found in traditional public schools" (Lake and Hill 2006). Many students enter charter schools several grade levels behind.

Charter school performance data can be difficult to decipher, but recent research increasingly demonstrates effectiveness. A 2004 Harvard University study compared the reading and mathematics proficiency of charter school students to that

Figure 4.1 States with Charter School Laws

States with Charter School Laws

Figure 4.2 Operating Charter School Growth

Operating Charter School Growth

Figure 4.3 Charter School Enrollment over Time

Charter School Enrollment over Time

of their peers in neighboring traditional public schools. Compared to students in the matched regular public school, charter students were 5.2 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and 3.2 percent more likely to be proficient in math on state assessments. In states where charter schools were well established, charter school students' proficiency was even greater (Hoxby 2004).

The Harvard study focused on aggregate data at the national level. When looked at individually, many charter schools are showing gains that are much less marginal. The DoE study Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap describes eight dramatic examples of schools that are closing the achievement gap between urban, minority, and low-income students and their better funded suburban counterparts (DoE 2006). Most first-rate charter school student graduates are accepted to college; many are the first in their families to attend.

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