Last year 2.9 million children attended 6,700 charter schools in America—public schools independent of districts and free of many bureaucratic constraints. Since charters were invented in Minnesota twenty-four years ago, they have become the subject of intense battles between supporters and detractors.
Supporters point out that charters receive 28 percent less money per child, on average, but still have higher graduation rates and send a higher percentage of graduates to college than traditional public schools with similar demographics. Detractors counter that charters often push out the hardest-to-teach students, and, citing a national study published in 2013 by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), they report charters barely, on average, outperform those traditional schools on standardized tests.
But that average masks the reality more than reveals it. In truth, we have forty-four different charter school laws and systems in this country. A close look at the CREDO study shows that in states where charters are rarely forced to close when their students are falling behind—in Arizona, Texas, Ohio, and others—charter students do underperform their socioeconomic peers in traditional public schools on standardized tests. In states where charter authorizers close failing charters, however—in Massachusetts, New York, Indiana, the District of Columbia, and others—charters outperform traditional public schools.
The truth is that charters have lived up to their billing in some places and been a disappointment in others. In one city, however, they have fulfilled the vision of even their most ardent supporters: that chartering would not only raise student achievement, but gradually replace the old system.