The U.S. has a few different schooling options for grade school kids — one being charter schools. Those saw a 7% enrollment increase during the 2020-21 school year, which is the largest increase in half a decade. Of that increase, 70% were students switching to virtual charter schools. Numbers for the most recent school year have yet to be released.
A recent analysis sheds light on a couple reasons behind that trend. For one, many parents were looking for other education options for their children outside of traditional public schools during the pandemic. But it also comes at a time when the U.S. is very politically divided. A survey conducted by The Harris Poll in May found that 83% of parents agree that education has become a more important political issue to them in recent years, and 82% say they are willing to vote outside of their political party on the issue of education.
If parents don't like what they're seeing in their current school district, they might choose to send their child to a local charter school instead of the traditional public school they're assigned to based on their address.
Charter schools are still public schools. The difference is that they're publicly funded but independently operated by nonprofit or for-profit groups. They have more freedom to make their own decisions unlike traditional public school districts. Charter schools can do things like lengthen the school day or school year, set their own curriculum and try new teaching methods, as long as they meet state standards.
However, charter schools don't get the freedom with no strings attached. Nina Rees, the President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, explains how these schools are held accountable.
"There's usually a term for the charter school anywhere between three to 10 years where they're held accountable to producing outcomes," Rees said. "If they don't perform, the entity that's authorizing them can close them, but they can also be closed if not enough families are interested in sending their kids to those schools."
The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, and the first charter school, City Academy, opened in St. Paul in 1992. City Academy focused on helping older students that dropped out of school and came from homes dealing with poverty and substance abuse. The founders wanted to create a school for kids who they believed were left behind or forgotten. The school still operates today.
By 1995, 18 more states passed charter school laws. Today, a total of 45 states have charter school laws.
Oftentimes, charter schools have different missions and focus on helping a unique set of students.
"Some of them are focused primarily on closing the achievement gap; others are focused on STEM," Rees said. "There is a good number of new schools that have been created focused on classical teachings. There are a few schools right here in Washington, D.C. that are focused on adult education. There are some schools in Atlanta that cater to the children of individuals who are in prison."
Today, there are about 7,700 charter schools in the U.S. serving more than 3 million students. More than half of these schools are in inner cities. The reason why many might not be familiar with them is because only 7% of the U.S. population is enrolled in a charter school.
Available research has shown that it's difficult to measure the effectiveness of charter schools. Since they don't have to follow the same guidelines as traditional public schools, a student's performance is impacted by a different set of factors.
A report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Standford took a holistic approach to compiling data on this. They compared students from charter schools and traditional public schools that were similar in many ways including race, gender, socioeconomic status, similar prior test scores and those who previously attended the same school.
Their data found that in general, the outcome was about the same for both sets of students. Other reports also conclude that charter schools are no better or worse.
Even though charter schools do give parents and students another choice in their education experience, there's been a lot of debate around charter schools over the years, and not everyone thinks they're a good idea.
The Network for Public Education, a public school advocacy organization that's concerned about the direction charter schools are heading, says there should be a pause on opening new charter schools. They conducted a report that found between 1999 and 2017, a quarter of charter schools closed after five years of opening and almost half closed after 15 years.
Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, co-authored that report. She explained what sometimes happens to these school buildings when the schools shut down.
"They start a school, the school fails, they sell the school to another for profit operators, so they've made some money," Burris said. "Then another school comes into the building, which very often is another failing school. So, you have kind of this constant churn that's happening."
In some places, charter schools have become the majority of schools available to students.
For example, a Vice News report from 2020 found that in Detroit, Michigan, about 100 charter schools opened between 1995 and 2015. During that same time frame, nearly 200 traditional public schools have shut down.
"When public schools start to disappear and your only choice is a charter school — and we see that happening in some neighborhoods, in big cities in Chicago, in Detroit and in New Orleans — the choice that you have, well, there should be a warning that's on the door that says this charter school could close or this school could close at any moment," Burris said.
The Network for Public Education says even though some charter schools do well, there's systemic issues with these schools, like mismanagement, taking funds away from traditional district public schools and a lack of democratic control.
"There are wonderful people in both charter schools and in public schools that get up every morning," Burris said. "They want to do the best for kids, but unfortunately, the charter school system and the laws that have been created in many states have also made it right for people who want to take a profit. Until we correct that and go back to that original intent of charter schools, you're going to continue to see all of the churn and all of the problems and scandals that surround charter schools."
Still, advocates for charter schools say it's all about providing more options for families.
"Polling shows that there is a good portion of the population that likes what a charter school is about and it supports charter schools," Rees said. "There's also a small cadre of individuals who will never be convinced that charter schools are a good thing for public education."