Charter Schools Essay

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Charter schools are public schools established by a contract between a public agency and charter school organizers. Most charters are granted by a local school district or a state education agency such as a board of education. In some states, public colleges and universities are also authorized to grant charters. In exchange for being exempt from some of the state regulations placed on public school operators, charter school organizers agree to be held accountable for the set of educational outcomes outlined in the school’s charter. There are two main types of charter schools, conversion charter schools and start-up charter schools. Conversion charter schools are existing public schools that have elected to convert to charter school status. Start-up charter schools are new schools. This entry looks at the history, organization, and impact of charter schools.

Historical Background

Charter schools have been a prominent item on the U.S. educational reform agenda since Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991. At the beginning of the 2005–2006 school year, forty states and the District of Columbia had charter school laws. In 2003–2004 approximately 3,000 charter schools were in operation in thirty-nine of these areas; just over 789,000 students, or 1.6 percent of all public school students nationwide were enrolled in charter schools, although enrollment varied considerably across states.

For example, the District of Columbia had the highest percentage of students enrolled in charter schools (16.6 percent) followed by Arizona (8 percent) and Delaware (5.3 percent). With only one school enrolling 196 students, which amounted to a fraction of its 869,113 public school students, Maryland had the lowest enrollment of students in charter schools. Not surprisingly, as the state with most public school students, California had the highest share of the total charter school students in 2003–2004 (20.2 percent), followed by Arizona (10.4 percent) and Michigan (9.1 percent).

Legal And Policy Issues

Charter school laws are not only constantly evolving, but they also differ widely from state to state. This is illustrated by a comparison of a few aspects of the charter school legislation in effect as of May 2005 for the three states that enroll the greatest number of charter school students—California, Michigan, and Arizona. There are similarities and differences across the three states in (a) the types of public agency empowered to authorize charter schools, (b) the certification requirements for charter school teachers, and (c) provisions allowing private schools to convert to charter school status.

In California, most charters are granted by local school districts, although county boards of education and the state board of education can also approve charter schools if a charter is denied by a local school district or if the school provides countywide or statewide services that are not provided by local school districts. In Michigan, charter schools are called Public School Academies (PSAs) and can be authorized by local school boards and the governing boards of community colleges and public universities. In Arizona, charters can be granted by school districts, the state board of education, and the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the state agency charged with overseeing charter schools.

Both California and Michigan require charter school teachers to hold state certification. Arizona’s charter school law does not require that charter school teachers be certified.

California specifically prohibits existing private schools from converting to charter schools; Arizona and Michigan allow such conversions. Arizona requires that private schools converting to charter school status have an admissions policy that is “nonselective and nondiscriminatory.” Michigan requires such schools to demonstrate a “good faith” effort that 25 percent of their students be new students.

Given this variation, charter school reform is a coherent policy in name only. The federal government has supported charter schools since 1994 through the Public Charter Schools Program. The Public Charter Schools Program provides funding for charter schools that is channeled through state departments of education. Federal funds are also used to support research on charter schools and to provide informational resources for constituents ranging from parents to educational researchers.

Charter schools are also a prominent component of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In the final NCLB legislation, charter schools were suggested as an option for students in underperforming schools. Students whose schools are identified as underperforming by state standards must be provided with the option to transfer to other schools within their districts, including charter schools. In addition, the law outlines a timetable for interventions within schools identified as underperforming, which could ultimately entail reorganizing underperforming schools as charter schools.

The Research Debates

Two hotly debated issues are: Do charter schools increase racial segregation, and do charter schools produce higher student achievement than conventional public schools? Using largely national-level comparisons, some researchers claim that the racial composition of charter schools tends to mirror those of all public schools. Other researchers find that disaggregating the data to state and local levels and using better segregation measures shows that charter schools increase racial segregation.

The findings on achievement are mixed. For example, the National Center for Educational Statistics included a sample of charter schools in the 2003 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). On average, charter school students scored roughly equal to or lower than students in conventional public schools with similar backgrounds.


  1. Cobb, C. D., & Glass, G. V. (1999). Ethnic segregation in Arizona charter schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 7(1).
  2. Frankenberg, E., & Lee, C. (2003). Charter schools and race: A lost opportunity for integrated education. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(32). Available from
  3. Manno, B. V., Vanourek, G., Chester, E., & Finn, J. (1999). Charter schools: Serving disadvantaged youth. Education and Urban Society, 31(4), 429–445.
  4. Miron, G., & Nelson, C. (2004). Student achievement in charter schools: What we know and why we know so little. In K. E. Bulkley & P. Wohlstetter (Eds.), Taking account of charter schools: What’s happened and what’s next? (pp. 161–175). New York: Teachers College Press.
  5. National Center for Education Statistics. (2004). America’s charter schools: Results from the 2003 NAEP Pilot Study. Washington, DC: Author.

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