An Option for Learning: An Assessment of Student Achievement in Charter Public Schools

Introduction

Since the 1930s, traditional public schools have been centrally run from the top down by state legislatures, school district administrators and, starting in the late 1960s, by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by powerful unions.  In addition, administrators in traditional public schools have never been held directly accountable for student performance.  Public schools that fail to educate students adequately often remain open and unchanged year after year.

In the early 1990s, education leaders in some states took a different approach by authorizing independent charter public schools.  Principals at charter public schools are allowed to control their budgets, teaching staff and educational programs with little or no central bureaucratic control.  States with well-designed charter schools hold administrators accountable for student performance, by following through on their commitment to parents and the public that children living in the state will have access to a quality education.  Charter public schools that consistently fail to educate students can be closed or placed under new management.

Minnesota lawmakers enacted the first charter public school bill in 1991.  Since then the idea has spread rapidly, with forty states and the District of Columbia passing charter public school legislation.  Across the nation, over 1.7 million children now attend 5,453 charter public schools.  This number increased by 9 percent in 2010 alone.

Charter public schools are popular.  An estimated 365,000 students are on waiting lists, enough to fill more than 1,000 additional charter schools.  New evidence from states with five or more years of experience shows that well-run charter schools perform significantly better than traditional schools.

Key Findings

  1. Charter public schools are popular with parents; 365,000 students are on waiting lists to attend a charter public school.
  2. Across the nation, over 1.7 million children now attend 5,453 charter public schools.  This number increased by 9% in 2010 alone.
  3. Well-run charter public schools perform significantly better than traditional public schools.
  4. Charter public school students are no different in academic background and motivation than students attending traditional public schools.
  5. Charter public schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have closed the achievement gap between minority and white students.

Read the full Policy Brief here.

Read the summary Policy Note here.