A charter school is an educational institution that provides free and uniquely structured educational opportunities to students and families seeking an alternative to traditional public school. Charter schools are a product of the demand for greater school choice, especially in cities where public schools often struggle to provide a high quality educational experience. The controversy over charter schools concerns the belief that charter schools are a valuable alternative to traditional public schooling, especially for disadvantaged or at-risk student populations versus the belief that charter schools divert funding and resources from traditional public schools.
The debate over charter schools concerns:
Charter schools operate independently, and therefore have more freedom to structure educational experiences according to the perceived needs of the populations they serve. Many have a specific program focus such as art, STEM, vocational training, and more. In exchange for this independence, charter schools draw some public funding, but less per student than do traditional public schools. Charter schools may operate either as non-profit or for-profit entities. The former may rely on private donations to some extent to maintain operation.
With more than 7000 charter schools operating today, and serving a student population the majority of which is disadvantaged, this type of quasi-public school has become an ingrained part of the educational landscape. Charter schools are beholden to standards created and monitored by charter authorizers within their state—which may be non-profit groups, government agencies, universities, or local school districts—in lieu of the Department of Education. However, charter school students must take the same state-mandated proficiency tests as must public school students. In many cases, charter schools and their teachers are held to performance standards by charter authorizers. The failure to meet these standards may result in the revocation of one’s charter. This means that, while new charter schools are opening all the time, charter schools that underperform either academically or financially are also closing all the time.
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The concept of the charter school is often attributed to Ray Budde, who in 1974, gave a presentation before the Society for General Systems Research in which he examined the idea of restructuring schools. His idea was based on the reorganization of the education department he’d experienced as an administrator at the University of Massachusetts. Budde was particularly interested in the organizational theory underlying education and how a shift in approach might change or improve outcomes.
There was at least one real-world model for Budde’s ideas in the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program (H.B. Woodlawn) in Arlington, Virginia. This was an alternative school serving grades 6-12. Though H.B. Woodlawn—founded in 1978—was a public school, its goal was to provide a more individualized learning experience aimed at improving educational outcomes.
H.B. Woodlawn was an exception to the rule, however. Few at the time of Budde’s presentation believed that any improvement of outcomes was required. For more than a decade, Budde’s ideas remained strictly theoretical. More than a decade later, that perception would undergo a major shift in the eyes of the American public. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report called A Nation at Risk, which determined that American schools were widely failing at their responsibility. One notable passage concludes that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people... If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
The report was seen as a landmark point of inflection in the history of American education, one that sparked a flurry of reform efforts at the federal, state and local levels. This prompted a new interest in Ray Budde’s ideas. So, “in early 1988, [Budde] got it published by the Northeast Regional Lab. He sent it around widely; even to then-President George H.W. Bush.”
The combination of the A Nation At Risk report and renewed interest in Budde’s writing helped to touch off the first wave of charter schools in the U.S. In particular, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, voiced his support for “schools of choice” in 1988. He is acknowledged by some as the first educational leader to publicly recognize the model put forth by schools like H-B Woodlawn and, in doing so, became an early and prominent advocate of “charter schools.”
The next several years saw the crystallization of the charter school concept as something of a hybrid between a private business and a public school. To the latter end, charter schools would operate without tuition funding, religious affiliation, or exclusive student admissions, and would instead receive public funding. To the former end, charter schools would operate free from the curricular requirements set forth by states and districts, and would instead be beholden to standards based on student outcomes.
Under Shanker’s leadership, the first of such schools emerged in Philadelphia’s blighted urban school district. These schools were seen as successful, and led to wider interest in the concept. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to legislate for the authorization of charter schools. California joined the following year. According to the Education Commission of States, as of 2021, 45 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws on the books. The ECS notes that “Charter school laws vary from state to state and often differ on several important factors, such as who may authorize charter schools, how authorizers and charter schools are held accountable for student outcomes, and whether charter school teachers must be certified.”
As individual states passed their own laws facilitating the development of charter schools, this alternative public school concept became one of the most rapidly growing approaches to educational reform. To an extent, during this period of time, charter schools enjoyed relatively bipartisan political support.
Conservative office-holders tended to view charter schools as a counterpoint to unwanted federal oversight of local educational goals whereas progressive office-holders tended to view charter schools as an important option for otherwise underserved student populations. Policies under Republican President George W. Bush (2001-2008) and Democratic President Barack Obama (2009-2016) both appeared generally to push the needle further in support of the charter school model.
President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program—which emphasized federal testing outcomes in either incentivizing or penalizing schools and districts—also included significant funding support for the expansion of charter schools. In 2006, Bush designated $219 million in grant funding for 1200 character schools, then added an additional $50 million in funding through the Choice Incentive Fund. This “voucher system” would become a popular policy concept—especially in conservative political circles—and would allow families from underperforming public school districts to use vouchers to attend any school they preferred. Bush provided an additional $37 million in funding for updates and improvements to charter schools, which was noteworthy at a time when many were beginning to emphasize a “cyber school” model with a focus on online learning.
With the start of the Obama administration, No Child Left Behind transformed into Race to the Top which, instead of penalizing underperforming schools, gave them the chance to transform into charter schools. The result was another surge in the number of charter schools and a concordant decline in the number of public schools in operation. According to the National Center on Educational Statistics (NCES) “Between fall 2009 and fall 2018, overall public charter school enrollment increased from 1.6 million students to 3.3 million students. During this period, the percentage of public school students who attended charter schools increased from 3 to 7 percent.”
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of charter schools in the U.S. between 2000 and 2020. Our rankings produced a list of school administrators, education secretaries, and educational historians who have either endorsed or criticized the growing emphasis on charter schools, as well as a small handful of civic leaders with a direct hand in either the expansion or contraction of funding for charter schools.
|3||Bill de Blasio|
|4||Daniel S. Loeb|
The NCES finds that between 2009 and 2019, the number of public charter schools in the U.S. grew from 5000 to more than 7400. Simultaneously, the number of public schools fell from 93,900 to 91,300. These trends are the outcome of the Obama-era policy allowing for the transformation of underperforming public schools into charter schools. These numbers were also stimulated by the near-total adoption of charter schools in urban contexts such as New Orleans, where the public school system essentially collapsed and was replaced by the charter model.
With more than 3 million students served by charter schools today, these institutions constitute roughly 8% of the public school system. As a result of their growing presence and popularity, charter schools in many cities have adopted a lottery system to help prioritize admissions. Most of these schools maintain waiting lists of more than 200 students at a given time.
Though views on charter schools are not deeply polarized along political lines, the last few years have generated some evidence that political disposition may play a part in one’s likelihood to support or object to the nature of charter schools. One of the primary reasons for this is that charter schools have increasingly moved away from employing unionized teachers while also lengthening the school day. Accordingly, “the number of charters providing a longer school day grew from 23 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2012.”
This parallels the trend, according to education expert Diane Ravitch, by which “95% of charters in the United States are non-union.” Ravitch goes on to argue that charter schools “follow an unsustainable practice of requiring teachers to work unusually long hours.”
This critique is joined by other sociological concerns. Because charter schools most often serve disadvantaged populations, which themselves reflect various dimensions of racial inequality in the American education system, there is some concern that charter schools are actually intensifying patterns of racial segregation in the American educational system. According to one UCLA report, charter schools are “on average, more racially segregated than traditional public schools.”
But the same study found that “These very high-poverty, high-minority schools produce achievement gains that are substantially greater than the traditional public schools in the same catchment areas.”
This duality helps to fuel an ongoing debate over whether or not charter schools are performing up to their expectations, whether or not charter schools are improving outcomes for disadvantaged students, and whether or not these schools are eroding quality, diverting funding, and depleting opportunities for students in traditional public schools. The debate also includes widespread disagreement about the accountability of charter schools, with critics expressing concern that charter schools are penalized for financial underperformance but that there is less accountability for low academic performance. Advocates argue that charter schools generally produce better academic performance outcomes and create opportunities for disadvantaged populations.
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of charter schools, this requires us to consider key phrases used by advocates including “school choice” and “school vouchers” as well as key identifiers for critics of the charter school movement, including “American Association of School Administrators (AASA)” and “Public School Advocacy.” We also selected the phrase “educational reform” which points to the undercurrents in education that ultimately predicated the school choice movement.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the charter schools issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
The key term in this controversy, “charter schools” refers to quasi-public but independent schools which are authorized at the state level, and which provide an alternative education to the traditional public school curriculum. Many focus on a specific area such as cyber-learning, career training, STEM, or the arts. The key influencers identified here include attorneys, journalists, and entrepreneurs who have either advocated for or profited from the proliferation of charter schools.
Largely referring to a system that gained greater prominence during the administration of President George W. Bush, “school vouchers” allow individuals in districts with underperforming public schools to pursue attendance at any school in a district, including public, charter, and private schools. Influencers include an array of activists, educators, and education policy advisors who support the use of vouchers to improve school choice and performance outcomes.
The notion of “school choice” is the underlying philosophy of the charter school movement, which holds that students in underperforming districts must be provided with alternatives. Influencers include economists, political science professors and educational reformers who see this freedom as central to improving outcomes in underserved communities.
This far-reaching keyword refers to various movements, both current and historical, aimed at redressing shortcomings in America’s system of education, especially in light of evidence that we are seeing declining outcomes. Influencers include education administrators, public office holders, and activists who have taken on direct roles in spurring reform—both in support of charter schools and more generally.
Some of these most vocal critics of the charter school movement are those who view this as an attack on public schools as well as on public school educators. The “American Association of School Administrators” is one such group, and has expressed its concern over the negative impact of the charter school movement on funding for public schools. Key influencers include former members and leaders of this professional association.
While charter schools are publicly funded, advocates for traditional public schools often view this funding as a diversion from the needs of public school systems and students. For this reason, “public school advocacy” is sometimes seen as a counterpoint to the charter school movement. Those who take this position argue in favor of improving resources and support for public schools rather than depleting these things in favor of further charter school funding. Influencers include educators and administrators with ties to the public school system.
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