A brief history of charter schools

In the late 1980’s the concept of charter schools was first considered. Initially charters were conceived as teacher-run schools that would serve students struggling to succeed. These schools were funded, in part by tax dollars, and operated outside the reach of the administrative bureaucracy and (often) controlling school boards. In essence they are publicly funded, but privately run.

A few years into this movement, charters began to draw criticism from opponents who said they were creating schools serving different populations of students than originally intended, and not offering equal access to services available to all students in traditional public schools.

“In the past decade, the character of the charter school movement has changed dramatically. It’s been transformed from community-based, educator-initiated local efforts designed to provide alternative approaches for a small number of students into nationally funded efforts by foundations, investors, and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized school system” (Karp, 2013).

Do they work?  That depends on whom you ask.


A 2009 national study of charter school performance by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter “reform,” found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. 

In 2013, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance.”

An updated study by CREDO (2013) found that, across the charter schools in 26 states studied, “25% have significantly stronger learning gains in reading than their traditional school counterparts, while 56% showed no significant difference and 19% of charter schools have significantly weaker learning gains. In mathematics, 29% of charter schools showed student learning gains that were significantly stronger than their traditional public school peers, while 40% were not significantly different and 31% were significantly weaker.”

This in an increase from their original study conducted in 2009 which found that only about 20% of charter schools had higher test scores than comparable public schools, while more than twice as many had lower scores (Karp, 2013) (see full CREDO report here).  (See Karp’s full article here).

It is worth noting here that the CREDO study focuses only on test scores as a measure of growth or success. As the testing movement of the last decade has reminded us, this is only one measure, and only one piece to an often complex puzzle. And as I said in yesterday’s blog, the student enrollment in charters does not mirror student enrollment in traditional public schools.  Additionally, the CREDO study does not identify exactly what made the difference in the increase in scores, rendering it difficult to replicate the model.

The growth and success of charters threatens to undermine public schools’ ability to equitably educate all students. The original intent of charters to create independently run lab schools for students not succeeding in traditional schools has not happened. Further growth of unregulated schools can do more harm to districts that need the most help. This is not to say all charters are bad. They are not. Some individual schools do well, but larger chains have failed to create a replicable model, or identify exactly what can account for the increase.

What can be learned from this?

If you asked me, public schools should be given opportunities to refocus curriculum, instructional and assessment methods which will better meet the academic needs of every student. This should be done without taking funding away from unregulated and often privately run for-profit schools. Equity and accountability.

These are my reflections today.




*About the 2013 National Charter School Study (CREDO) The National Charter School Study is based on an analysis of student data from Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada,New Jersey, New Mexico, New York,New York City,North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee,Texas, and Utah. Together, these states educate more than 95 percent of the nation’s charter school students.
*Karp, S. (2013) Charter schools and the future of public education. Rethinking Schools  23 (1).



Author: Meg White

I am a lifelong educator and I hope to use this blog to reflect on what's happening in public education. These are my musings, opinions, and reflections. If you learn from them, good for us. Ignorance is no excuse. I have co-authored a book, "Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Teacher in Urban Environments" (available on amazon)

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