Seven Results of the Charter-School Revolution

The most consequential developments after 25 years of charter schools.

  • K-12 Education
  • Philanthropy Magazine

A quarter century has gone by since Minnesota passed America’s first charter-school law in 1991. Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have charter laws and together contain some 6,800 charter schools, serving nearly 3 million students. Charter schools constitute the fastest-growing school-choice option in the land, and are the most significant innovation that K-12 education has seen in decades. Yet such schools have only begun to fulfill their potential as an engine of change for American education. Here, we look at seven chartering achievements that have been attained in a relative blink of history’s eye.

Focusing on at-risk kids

U.S. charter schools primarily serve poor and minority children. Several forces drive this concentration. About half of state laws declare that a specific purpose of chartering is to boost options for targeted students, especially those at risk. Some states have statutorily restricted charters to urban areas (and, sometimes, to low-achieving districts or pupils). And families in underserved neighborhoods are more apt to seek out charters when given the opportunity.

The focus of most charters up to this point on urban, minority kids has been good for those kids, as achievement data show. It has also been a positive force in calling attention to the needs and potential of these children in the K-12 system as a whole. At the same time, the emphasis on at-risk kids has limited the potential of charters to serve more and different students.

Because of their emphasis on inner-city children, many charters aren’t very integrated. But then neither are conventional schools in similar neighborhoods. In fact, University of Arkansas analysts observe that “the majority of students in the central cities of metropolitan areas, in both charter and traditional public schools, attend school in intensely segregated settings.” Arguments over racial isolation will continue. For now, we simply note that charters mostly serve children who need a boost.

Revealing public demand

Charters have come to play a major role in the education ecosystems of some cities. In 2014-15, 14 communities saw 30 percent or more of their students enroll in charter schools; 45 districts had at least a fifth of their students in charters; and more than 160 had at least a tenth. If the 151,000 charter pupils in Los Angeles were a separate district, it would rank among the 20 largest in the land.

Bellwether Education Partners estimates that at least 1 million more children were languishing on waiting lists in 2013. Many parents don’t even sign up, because they know there are already long backlogs. In the fall of 2014, Boston had nearly three times as many children on wait lists as were enrolled in that city’s charters. In New York City, the Success Academy network reports that for the 2016-17 school year, it had 20,000 applicants for 3,000 places.

The tribulations that can result were poignantly portrayed in Waiting for Superman, the 2010 documentary in which children and parents agonize as names are drawn during an admission lottery. It’s clear that many more families would use the charter option if they could. This reflects both the strong demand for charter schools, and the extent of dissatisfaction with traditional public-school offerings.

Fostering innovation

The promise that charters would innovate within public education, devising and piloting strategies and models that the traditional system could then adopt, was indisputably part of this reform’s original appeal to educators, policymakers, and philanthropists. And innovation has indeed happened, although few district bureaucracies have been eager to adopt and expand charter-crafted advances.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen made a useful distinction between disruptive innovation—a truly novel change that displaces something that existed before—and incremental change that refines and boosts an extant product or service. Chartering has accomplished some of both. To varying degrees, charters have generally done well at such things as blended learning, personalized technology-assisted instruction, character education, empowering principals, attracting talented and passionate teachers, establishing order in classrooms, creating new curricula, and extending the number of hours that children devote to academics. Charters have essentially eclipsed the district arrangement in one major city (New Orleans), and are headed that way in several more.

We would never suggest that every charter school has invented something original. A 2015 report from the Mind Trust and Public Impact complained that too many charters resemble—in structure, curriculum, pedagogy, uses of time, and so forth—the district schools to which they’re meant to be alternatives. Chartering certainly creates opportunities to innovate, but not all such opportunities are seized.

Still, from a child’s or family’s perspective, a school that does something better than another school—even when there’s no fundamental change in concept or practice—is a gain. And a decent number of charters and networks have tried, and continue to try, instructional models and strategies that have little precedent, at least in their own communities.

Realizing the power of no excuses

Charter schools have considerable freedom to vary in philosophy, pedagogy, and organization. Thus we find Montessori charters, Waldorf-style charters, STEM charters, outdoor-education charters, virtual charters, language-immersion charters, and special-education charters. There are teacher-governed schools, business-operated schools, startup schools, and conversion schools. The variety is impressive.

Perhaps the most notable model to emerge is the “no-excuses” school that places high behavioral and academic expectations on low-income and minority inner-city students. Other features typically include a clear and rigorously enforced discipline code, longer school days and years, a curriculum geared toward college entry, and a strong focus on building a comprehensive school culture. They accept no excuses for failure, either by children (provided that they strive and behave), teachers, or schools.

To be sure, some conventional district schools impressively boost outcomes for poor and minority students. No-excuses charter schools, however, have shown that they can replicate their model successfully and that they are able to systematically expand and succeed wherever they are allowed. Chartering’s signal accomplishment to date is the remarkably reliable track record of prominent “brands” like KIPP, YES Prep, Success Academy, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and others. These “proof points” take poor kids from faltering schools and tough neighborhoods and tread the path toward the ivy gates.

Proof is one thing, of course, acceptance quite another. Successful though it may be, this school model is not universally admired. A 2014 Washington Post article evoked the main criticism in its headline: “Why ‘No Excuses’ Charter Schools Mold ‘Very Submissive’ Students—Starting in Kindergarten.” Critics grate against the structure and order of these schools.

Energizing (and redirecting) donors

Charters have inspired a surge of education-linked philanthropy, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars of venture funding into K-12 reform. It’s hard to imagine that much of this money would have appeared absent the tantalizing and non-bureaucratic instrument of the charter school.

Over the last two decades, new foundations like Walton, Dell, Robertson, Broad, Fisher, Daniels, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation displaced more established foundations like Annenberg, Wallace, and Joyce from the top tier of education donors. (The Gates Foundation remained the largest K-12 donor over that entire period, though, and remains so today.) The funding patterns of the newer foundations were different, including much support for “jurisdictional challengers” like charter schools and organizations such as Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools.

A study by Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder of Michigan State University found that the top 15 education philanthropies reduced the fraction of their total funding going to conventional district schools from about 16 percent of grant dollars in 2000 to 8 percent in 2010, while funding for charters rose from 3 to 16 percent. Also visible over this period was greater convergence in grantmaking, as new and old foundations did more bundling of support for kindred activities and programs. For instance, in 2010, the Charter School Growth Fund, Teach For America, KIPP, DC Public Education Fund, and NewSchools Venture Fund together received more than $150 million from the top 15 foundations—a sum that amounted to 18 percent of their total giving. Cities like Washington, Newark, and New Orleans emerged both as centers of reform and as philanthropy magnets.

In short, new funders have entered the field and devoted themselves to outside-the-system strategies like chartering, particularly the creation and replication of no-excuses schools. Predictably, however, the engagement of these deep-pocketed donors (and others such as Mark Zuckerberg) with grantees that challenge the traditional K-12 system has provoked pushback. The narrative coming from teacher unions and other critics is that plutocrats are distorting American public education.

Mobilizing talent and support structures

Creating new schools requires new school leaders, instructors, and support personnel. The charter sector has benefited from—and catalyzed—much enterprise on this front. Charter successes and professional opportunities have energized young people to join its ambitious endeavor. And donors have built and expanded alternative routes and mechanisms for training leaders and teachers.

The freedom of charters to staff themselves with people who have not been conventionally credentialed has fostered much creativity, both at the building level and at umbrella organizations like Teach For America that have drawn in talent that would otherwise not likely have considered this career stop. From 2010 to 2014, one third of TFA corps members—slightly more than 1,700 annually—were placed in charter schools. And over that same period, the number of TFA alums teaching within the charter sector jumped from 5,900 to 11,200. TFA grads heading charter schools and charter networks jumped even more dramatically—from 1,900
to 4,300.

Groups like TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), Leading Educators, Educators 4 Excellence, 4.0 Schools, Teach Plus, and the National Academy of Advanced Teacher   Education have likewise worked with charter schools to pull impressive new talent into education. And some charters, frustrated by the slipshod quality, iffy content, long timelines, low stature, and high cost of conventional teacher-college programs, have launched their own alternatives. Match Education in Boston created the Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education to prepare teachers for “the intensity and rigor” of teaching, primarily in no-excuses charters, and has been accredited in Massachusetts. New York City’s Relay Graduate School of Education was launched by Uncommon Schools in partnership with Achievement First and KIPP NYC and has been approved by the New York Regents as the first standalone graduate school of education in the Empire State in more than eight decades. Relay now trains more than 2,000 teachers and principals annually. California’s High Tech High likewise has created its own state-recognized graduate school of education and education leadership.

Charter principals typically wield authority across many elements of their schools and most charter teachers enjoy considerable freedom in curriculum, pedagogy, and instructional materials, though they often work long hours so as to be accessible to students and to shoulder more responsibility not just for children’s cognitive growth but also for their development as upstanding, motivated people. Without the lure and flexibility of these opportunities at charter schools, it’s hard to imagine that today’s much richer preparation programs for educators would ever have emerged.

Nor are charters the only destination for those trained in these new programs. Lots of terrific people who entered K-12 education via charters now occupy key positions in districts, state agencies, and more—all the way up to John King, who cut his education teeth in the charter sector as co-founder of Boston’s Roxbury Prep Charter School and then as managing director of Uncommon Schools, and is now U.S. Secretary of Education.

Hundreds of nonprofit and for-profit organizations have emerged to help charter schools with staff development, leadership training, financial services, facility financing, special education, and more. Groups such as Building Hope, Pacific Charter School Development, and Civic Builders aid charters with facility financing, sometimes using program- related investment funds from foundations. On the R&D front, the charter sector has spawned entities like Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance, whose purpose is to understand how the new era of New Orleans school reform has influenced teaching and learning in the Big Easy and what this may mean for the future of school reform.

Although some such enterprises existed in pre-charter days, the sector’s growth has caused them to proliferate, innovate, and compete with one another. Because charters are also a marketplace for service providers, the schools can choose from among a range of vendors and partners. And when extant providers can’t meet their needs, charters often catalyze the creation of new ones.

Building new governance mechanisms

The charter mechanism is not just a source of new schools but also a structural reform of public education’s governance and delivery systems. Chartering explodes the district’s exclusive franchise to operate public schools, and offers families a chance at potentially better schools without having to pay tuition. This is a breakthrough in the provision of education services by American society.

The management organizations that operate charter chains across different cities and states represent another governance innovation. They run schools in multiple locations, create new schools, brand their educational product, enforce standards across their networks, troubleshoot problems in particular schools, and provide efficient back-office services to their member schools. They’ve become a key way to expand charters within and across states. Although the majority of charters continue to be freestanding—a sector full of startups—these networks have built the organizational, managerial, and financial capacities that also allow fast expansion while keeping quality high.

Another charter-linked governance innovation is the “recovery school district”—a state-controlled entity that takes over poorly performing schools, in effect extracting them from their local districts, and reboots them as charter or charter-like schools. The most visible examples are Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority. At least half a dozen other states are creating or heading toward similar entities.

Within traditional districts, too, chartering has sometimes paved the way for rethinking central-office and school relationships, and some districts have incorporated chartering into their own improvement efforts. The Center on Reinventing Public Education has a network of more than 45 cities working on so-called “portfolio management strategies. Under this arrangement, the central office remains in charge but confers considerably greater autonomy than in the past upon its schools, some of which become charters authorized by the district itself.

None of the developments described here is finished. Yet charters have already shown their ability to boost the life chances of at-risk kids, to foster innovation in governance, to catalyze philanthropic assistance, and to widen crucial training pipelines. All of this has advanced public education as a whole.

While disruption in this realm has mostly caused heartburn in established K-12 systems, and while not every charter school is an educational success, after 25 years it’s time to acknowledge that chartering is no firefly. It mostly works. It’s here to stay. And anyone whose top priority is the education of children would do well to help improve and expand its successes, address its shortcomings, and amplify the good that charters do for kids. 

This is adapted from Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities by Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno, and Brandon L. Wright, just released by Harvard Education Press.