Today in the U.S. there are approximately 3 million students being served by nearly 7,000 charter schools across 43 states and the District of Columbia. We’ve come a long way since the first charter school opened its doors in Minnesota back in 1991, but I ask myself as we celebrate National Charter Schools Week, have we come far enough?
Across the country students are stuck on charter school wait lists -- with most schools reporting wait lists of nearly 300 students each -- and demand continues to outstrip supply, suggesting that charter schools could grow significantly faster to serve more students if the policy environments were more supportive.
For 19 years, The Center for Education Reform has evaluated state charter school laws to address these fundamental issues with a thorough review of what the words of laws actually mean in practice, not just on paper. Interpretation and implementation vary depending on how the regulations are written, and frankly, who’s in charge.
Charter school growth does continue at a steady, nearly linear pace nationally, especially in states with charter laws graded “A” or “B,” but an even more accelerated pace would allow charter schools to play a more central role in addressing the demands and needs of our nation’s students. Even the top five charter school laws in the nation -- The District of Columbia, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan and Arizona -- while earning “As,” are still 10 or more points away from a perfect score.
Public charter schools are an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to giving parents power over their children’s education and the freedom to choose the best environment for their children’s unique individual learning needs. Parents deserve access to a portfolio of excellent education options -- from public charter schools, to traditional public schools, brick and mortar, completely online, blended, home-school, or some other learning innovation we have yet to think of -- regardless of their zip code.
The lack of progress made in state houses across the country over the past few years to truly improve the policy environment for charter schools can be chalked up to a lack of political will leading up to a major mid-term election. It also explains why two-thirds (69 percent) of Americans rated their state lawmakers track record on education “fair” or “poor” on the Center for Education Reform’s recent poll.
The biggest culprit however, is a lack of information, or perhaps a growing body of misinformation, as to what constitutes strong, responsible charter school policy. Pressure from opponents and proponents alike to increase regulation, biased media reporting and inconsistent data have become a distraction.
Regardless of one’s position on charter schools or the principles of parent choice and performance-based accountability, those engaged in the lawmaking process must understand the impact of their interpretation of charter school policy. They must also take responsibility for whether the implementation yields the intended result, which is to ensure the creation of excellent and numerous learning opportunities for children.
At The Center for Education Reform we take responsibility for holding ourselves and the charter school movement to high standards in pursuit of great policies that meet four proven criteria for improving student outcomes:
Provide families new and meaningful choices
Hold them accountable for results
Ensure autonomy for educators to innovate
Guarantee fiscal equity for both students and schools.
We stand ready to help advocates and policy makers bring about meaningful change in their communities.
Kara Kerwin is president of The Center for Education Reform.