Charter schools represent the fastest-growing, reform movement in public education today. In just five years, 26 reform statutes have been passed and at least 475 schools have been established. Charter innovators in these states are redefining public education—from education that is provided by governmental entities to education that is offered by a range of public and private providers—that remains publicly-funded, nondiscriminatory and open to all, and accountable to public authorities for results. Typically, political support for charter reforms has cut across party lines, though, enacting effective legislation has required resisting pressure from established interest groups.
It has become increasingly clear that the effectiveness of charter reforms, including whether any charter schools result at all, is dependent on crucial, often highly technical features of the charter statutes. Among the 19 charter statutes enacted between 1991 and the fall of 1995, 11 resulted in the establishment of nine or fewer schools by the fall of 1996, with five statutes resulting in no charter schools at all. Even in those states where a significant number of charter schools have been established, specific features of the charter statute have had a major impact on the range and success of charter schools.
Based on the experience of charter schools over the last five years, seven key features of effective charter statutes can be identified. These included features:
- Allow charter schools to be fully independent, diverse legal entities and avoid prescriptions for their internal governance or management;
- Provide charter schools with a blanket waiver, including waivers for state statutes and regulations other than ones addresssing performance-based goals and assessments or health, safety, and civil rights, or education and administrative certification requirements;
- Create new independent charter-approving entities, such as a state charter board, or authorize existing state entities, such as a state board of education, to approve charters. Charters approved by local school boards should be subject to state review.
- Protect the integrity of the charter-approving process by insulating charter-approving entities from political influence and requiring that decisions be made on the basis of clear and objective criteria.
- Establish direct state funding of charter schools at a level equivalent to the average of all state and local expenditures, including both operating and capital revenues.
- Ensure that charter schools have access to adequate public or private capital for facility and other major up-front costs that require long-term repayment schedules. Either authorize long-term (15- year) charters that permit typical facility repayment schedules or establish a process for charter schools to obtain equivalent public loan guarantees or credit enhancements.
- Avoid limiting provisions that treat charter schools as “lighthouse” or “experimental” schools rather than as fundamental reform, such as an overall cap on the number of charter schools.
Implementation of successful charter reforms in an increasing number of states, including the five profiled in this study, has demonstrated the potential of the charter mechanism. Contrary to the fears of some that charters would “cream” the best non-minority students and leave the rest worse off than before, the evidence so far appears to indicate that charter schools serve a more diverse and disadvantaged population than regular public schools.
Across the different states, a broad array of charter schools has resulted, including at least six distinct models: schools managed by grassroots organizations, schools focused on special student populations, schools centered around distance learning/home learning, business-managed schools, schools structured as teacher cooperatives, and schools converted from regular public schools.
Each of these models has distinct features, including organizational structure and mission, service delivery mechanism, or clients served. Schools established by grassroots groups (including parents, teachers, and community organizations) are currently the most numerous, as well as the type most favored by those involved with the current educational system. Home-learning schools represent the most innovative break with the past, but also the most controversial. Slightly less controversial to date are business-managed charter schools. Such schools, however, also appear to have a strong interest in replicability, an orientation toward research-tested educational methods, and provide greater access to upfront capital and managerial talent. A substantial number of charter schools serve special student populations (such as dropouts or students with disabilities), representing a powerful response to those critics that predicted that market-style reforms would leave behind those populations in greatest need.
In states where a healthy charter movement exists, reforms in regular public school districts have begun to be implemented as a result of the competitive pressure of nearby charter schools. Such positive effects of competition represent the fastest way for charter schools to spur broad improvement in the education of most school children.