Charter Schools: 13 Years and Still Growing

(This week is the sixth annual "National Charter Schools Week." The article below originally appeared in the May 1 School Reform News, published by The Heartland Institute, based in Chicago.)

Charter schools — those public schools that must recruit students and fulfill the terms of a contract or risk losing state funding — continue to grow nationwide, both in number and in enrollment.

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According to the Center for Education Reform, more than 400 charter schools were started in 32 states in the 2004-2005 school year — a dramatic 15 percent nationwide increase over the previous school year.

Joe Nathan, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for School Change at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, estimates there are roughly 3,400 charter schools across the country enrolling approximately 800,000 students.

"Clearly, there is a huge demand," Nathan said, noting the growth has occurred in just 13 years, since City Academy opened in St. Paul, Minn., with 50 kids in 1992. What’s driving that demand?

"Two things," Nathan said. "Hope and desperation."

Parents Unaware of Option

Nathan, who helped design Minnesota's charter school law in 1991 — the nation’s first — said, "There are some terrific district schools," but parents of many low-income and minority students are choosing charter schools because these students "are not being well-served" by conventional schools. Nathan and others observe many charter schools serve a higher percentage of poor minority students than conventional public schools.

Regarding the future of charter schools, Nathan says they will need to focus on "greater visibility and quality as their priorities."

Research suggests he may not be far off with either prescription.

In October 2003, the Pew Hispanic Center sponsored a survey conducted by International Communications Research and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which asked respondents whether they favored the concept of charter schools. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they didn’t "know enough to have an opinion." Public Agenda has reported these results and others like them.

Good State Laws Essential

Where quality is concerned, studies show many variables contribute to student performance. One key variable, the Center for Education Reform notes, is the strength of the state law under which charters operate.

In CER's "Charter School Laws Across the States: Ranking and Scorecard," the eighth edition of which was published in 2004, evaluators graded charter school laws in 40 states and the District of Columbia. The report defines strong laws as those that don't "constrict operations, impose administrative burdens, stifle creativity, and ... (don't) deter ... applicants and charter operations."

The report also says, "Higher and more comprehensive student achievement is found in charter schools in states that have stronger laws."

How well did states measure up? According to the report, only six states received "A" grades. Fourteen got B’s, and there were 13 C’s, six D’s, and two F’s.

Parents "Desperate for Quality"

When describing parental demand for quality in Michigan — one of the "A" states — Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, uses the same word as Nathan: "desperate."

"Parents are desperate for quality schools for their students," Quisenberry said. "Charter public schools are empowering parents and educators, employing teachers and investing in neighborhoods — all while giving kids a quality opportunity."

In the end, empowerment may be the ultimate cause of growth in the charter school movement. A book by Dr. David Van Heemst, associate professor of political science at Illinois’ Olivet Nazarene University, published in October 2004, seems to provide confirmation: It's titled "Empowering the Poor: Why Justice Requires School Choice."


Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.