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What are Charter Schools?

The desire to improve classroom learning is a reoccurring theme in American public education that first rose to national prominence as early as the 1800's. The current effort to form "charter schools" can be traced to a movement that began in the late 1960's and early 1970's when innovative schools were established in such places as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and St. Paul. These schools rejected the notion that "one size fits all" and sought to create distinctive schools that provide choices to parents and students. Charter school advocates point out that the forces that shaped this movement differ from the racial issues that led to the formation of "magnet schools."

Charter Schools are distinct legal entities. They are public schools that are financed by public funds but are governed by their own specific charter and not by the regular public school regulations. State Legislatures enact charter school enabling legislation and determine the framework for charter approval. New schools may be created or converted from existing public schools under the direction of educators, parents, community members or private concerns. The "charter" explicitly defines the schools goals and provides a framework for measuring success. It is a fundamental tenet of the movement that the charter guarantees that the school is accountable for progress in order to continue. Of supreme importance to charter school spokespersons is the belief that almost total independence from constraints of regular public schools is required for success. It is believed that improved learning will occur when students are provided choice in educational approach. Thus, the key words and phrases that most commonly are associated with charter schools are: public, freed from regulation, accountable for performance, charter must be renewed.

Charter School Demographics

The first charter school legislation was enacted in 1991 in Minnesota. Since then the number of states that have enacted similar laws has increased to more than 29. President Clinton has been a strong advocate of public school innovation, including charter schools. He has set a Y2K goal of increasing the number of states allowing charter schools to 40 and the number of charter schools to 3,000. Data from "The Center for Education Reform" notes that through 1/98 a total of 784 charter schools had opened, 143 more were approved and 241 were pending. The majority of these schools were for elementary students but also educated students ranging from pre-Kindergarten through adult. Placed in context, the U.S. Department of Education reported public schools in 1996 numbered 86,221 and the total number of schools, including private and parochial, was 108,000 with a student population of 52.2 million.

Charter School Profiles

On average, charter schools are small, with about 60% enrolling fewer than 200 students compared to 16% of public schools with a similar small enrollment. Overall, the racial composition and the proportion of lower-income students are similar to other public schools on a statewide basis. In other measures, charter schools have a slightly lower proportion of students with disabilities and who are limited in English proficiency. It is impossible to profile a "typical" charter school. They range from those that are designed to serve student populations with specific disabilities or who are categorized as "gifted" to those that have "moral values" as their primary focus. Because of this diversity of purpose, charter school advocates resist direct comparison with public schools. Additionally, there is little data on the overall success of the charter school concept since they have been in existence a relatively short time. Twenty-nine charter schools have been closed already, however, due to the failure to meet minimum state standards. There is often little restriction on who can apply for a charter and "for profit" groups are increasingly gaining charters around the country.

Charter School Report Card

Although "accountability" is the mantra of the charter school movement, their success is anecdotal at the present time. Advocates believe that there is "a sense of progress". When queried, a spokesperson wrote, "Of course, not all charter schools are doing better than their traditional peers, but they are addressing important issues of accountability and measurable progress that has been absent from many traditional public schools." In order to make a valid assessment of charter school success however, and to determine whether or not they lead to improved learning, objective measurements that can be compared between charter schools and traditional schools will be required.


Families are provided with choice. Because of their small size and limited number, only some families have choice and thus fairness and equity are in question.
Charter schools can serve as laboratories for experimentation with transfer of successful methodologies to the broader public school system. There are several reform models already that are deemed successful, which might be implemented.
The creation of competition will lead to the appropriate pressure to reform unsuccessful practices. Charter schools have an unfair advantage due to smaller size, fewer regulations and access to federal funds that are unavailable to traditional public schools.
Systemic reform will result from the pressure and competition of the mechanism. The limited scope of the charters is inadequate to provide adequate reform to the entire public school system.
Charter schools are held accountable. If they do not perform, they are not renewed. Charters are not accountable because they are freed from the same rules and regulations that are used to ensure quality in other public schools.

The siphoning of monies from traditional public schools for experimentation that may not be well founded is a cause for concern. As implemented, these schools sometimes reflect a narrow and parochial focus that may be at odds with the premise of public education or in conflict with the spirit of church/state separation.

Report Resources:
DeSchryver, D.A. (1999) The Center for Education Reform Web site. Personal communication.
National Charter School Directory (1997-1998), Fourth Edition, The Center for Education Reform, Washington, D.C.
Nathan, J. (1996) Charter Schools Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, San Francisco, CA.
Penner, K. (1999) Make Charter Schools Accountable, Too. Business Week, p. 123.

The above material developed by Auburn League of Women Voters (February 1999)


Charter schools officially became part of public education in the District of Columbia in 1996 when Congress passed the DC School Reform Act. This legislation established the DC Public Charter School Board; its six members are nominated by the U. S. Secretary of Education and appointed by the Mayor of the District of Columbia. The DC School Reform Act authorizes both the DC Public Charter School Board and the DC Board of Education to charter schools. Up to 20 schools (10 by each board) can be chartered each year.

The District's first two charter schools were two former alternative schools that received their charters in 1996: Options, a middle school, housed in the Capital Children's Museum, emphasizes hands-on learning; and, the Children's Studio Elementary School whose focus is learning through the arts. Among the 19 charter schools that opened in the fall of 1998 are the Next Step High School for teen parents, chartered by the Latin American Youth Center, and the Caesar Chavez Public Policy High School. In the fall of 1999, 10 additional new charter schools opened their doors. Today, 6,912 students attend the District's 31 charter schools. The District's charter schools receive funds from the DCPS budget based on the school system's Uniform Per Pupil Funding Formula. Since these schools have non-profit status, many also raise private funds to support their educational programs.

Charter schools are accountable for the academic performance of their students. Accountability is based on a performance contract between the school's chartering authority and the school's sponsors. This contract spells out the expected student outcomes, and the continued existence of a charter school will depend on whether those outcomes are achieved.

Prepared by Elinor Hart, DC League of Women Voters (February 2000)

DC Voter March 2000 Insert

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