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Into unchartered territory: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

| August 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Nina Rees

Each year, the American news magazine US News & World Report 1 publishes rankings of the nation’s best high schools.

In 2014, 24 public charter schools were included among the 100 best high schools in America.2 Of the top ten, three were charter schools, despite the fact that charter schools make up only 6% of public schools in the country. The story of charter schools’ growth in northern America has been one of rising standards, along with rising numbers. From the first charter schools launched in Minnesota in 1991, there are now more than 6 400 public charter schools across America. They serve more than 2. 5 million students. Another one million students’ names are on waiting lists to attend charter schools.

In 135 school districts in the United States (US), more than 10% of public school students now attend charter schools. The numbers are much higher in some large cities such as Washington, DC, Detroit, Philadelphia and New Orleans. In fact, with the start of the 2014–2015 academic year in August, every single public school in New Orleans will be a charter school.

Charter schools have grown particularly quickly in urban communities, because they’ve demonstrated a remarkable ability to improve the performance of some of the nation’s most vulnerable students. A study by Stanford University in California found that charter schools do a better job than traditional schools of teaching low-income students, minority students and students who are still learning English.3

Despite the growth and success of charter schools, many people still don’t fully understand what public charter schools are – a reality that creates challenges for charter school advocates, including parents, teachers, public officials and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS).4

Charter schools: public schools with flexibility

Public charter schools share characteristics with traditional American public schools. They are cost-free to families and open to any child who wishes to attend, as long as space is available. Charter schools are not private or independent feebased schools. They receive taxpayer funds through local governments and states. The federal government also provides some funding for charter schools, including funds to open new schools and to pay some of the costs of educating students from very low-income families.

Public charter schools operate under a contract (or charter) issued by local school districts or statewide charter school authorisers. These authorisers then provide oversight of charter schools’ academic performance and financial management.

What sets charter schools apart from traditional public schools is that they are managed independently of local school districts. In the US, local districts (usually consisting of several municipalities or a county) establish and enforce policies, rules and procedures pertaining to curriculum, teacher employment contracts, school scheduling and discipline.

Charter schools set their own policies in these areas. However, they are required to adhere to the same academic achievement standards as other public schools. This includes meeting performance benchmarks on state-administered tests of student knowledge. Charter schools have much greater flexibility in how to meet academic goals, allowing them to innovate in their curriculum. For instance, some charter schools offer a curriculum focused on the arts, or public service, or the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Some charters are entirely virtual, allowing children to engage in a high-quality curriculum from home. Other charter schools favour experiential learning by taking students outside of the classroom. One successful charter school in the state of Kansas incorporates farming activities across the curriculum, because farming is an important part of life in that very agricultural state.5

Many public charter schools also operate on different schedules to traditional public schools. The standard US school model requires five to six hours of instructional time per day, for roughly 180 school days in an academic year. Charter schools frequently go beyond that, keeping students in class longer throughout the day and shortening the summer break period. Charter schools may also double up on the amount of time spent on core classes such as language arts, mathematics and science.

On the administrative side, charter schools in most states are not required to adopt contracts agreed to by local school districts and teachers’ unions. Because the contracts typically spell out requirements related to the amount of time teachers spend in school, both daily and over the course of the year, this is a critical distinction, allowing charters to provide more instructional time to students. Teachers at charter schools are also eligible for performance bonuses, and are typically involved in more collaborative decision-making processes. Principals are invested with greater authority to hire or dismiss teachers, based on classroom performance and school needs.

Relationships with traditional public schools and unions

The fact that charter schools are often free from the strictures of labour contracts has generated friction between public charter school advocates and teachers’ unions.6While some charter schools are unionised, most are not. Unfortunately, this has resulted in charter opponents perpetuating myths about charter schools, including that they are private schools, that they accept only the best students, and that charter schools are free from state academic standards.

The irony here is that one of the early proponents of public charter schools was Albert Shanker, a long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest unions.7 Shanker viewed charter schools as a way to give teachers more authority over how schools are run and students are taught – and that is exactly what charter schools offer today. Shanker and others also viewed public charter schools as laboratories of innovation. Promising ideas in educational and pedagogical theory could be tested in smaller environments and, when proven successful, be incorporated more broadly into the public system.

The dissemination of proven ideas is still a primary objective of charter schools. And we’re beginning to see more of that across the country. The Chicago Public Schools district, for example, has collaborated with a charter school network from Massachusetts to borrow and implement the charter schools’ training programme for school principals.

Parents’ crucial role in charter schools

The greatest advocates for public charter schools tend to be the parents of students who are enrolled in the schools. This parental power was brought to the fore recently in New York City. The city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced plans to halt the granting of new charters and to strip away promised funding and classroom space from a handful of charter schools.8 In response, 17 000 parents, students and teachers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in solidarity9 and, in the spring of 2014, a caravan of supporters went to the state capital of Albany to prevail upon the governor to reverse the mayor’s decision.10 They succeeded. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo worked with the state legislature to enact a series of new guarantees to provide financial support and needed real estate for charter school expansion. It’s impossible to imagine that policy victory occurring without the vocal support of so many New York City charter school parents.

The future of public charter schools

As the public charter school sector continues to grow and expand, the NAPCS is focused on three primary goals for the movement:

1. Raising the bar on quality: Although many public charter schools are outstanding, helping students to achieve success few thought possible, some charter schools fall short of the mark. This is, of course, also true of traditional public schools and even private (independent) schools. However, the heightened political scrutiny of public charter schools makes it all the more important that the sector police itself. We must be quick to identify schools that fail to improve student achievement, or that break trust with their parents and taxpayers by mismanaging funds. Research indicates that a charter school’s performance in its first few years accurately predicts longterm performance, so there is an incentive to act swiftly to correct failure.

2. Improving charter laws to spur innovation: In the US, most decisions about education policy and funding are made at the state and municipal level. Currently, 42 states (and Washington, DC) have laws that allow for charter schools. Eight states do not. We aggressively promote the adoption of charter school legislation in states that haven’t yet authorised charters, and work to improve weak laws. For instance, many states put limits on the number of charter schools allowed to open (a major contributor to the million-plus waitlist for charter school seats), or restrict charters’ ability to innovate in the classroom. The NAPCS works with local partners throughout the country to improve state charter laws and head off efforts to weaken or roll back laws. We also publish a model law and an annual ranking of state laws to give states a clear statutory benchmark they should strive to meet.

3. Ensuring funding equity: Even though charter schools are public schools – supported by taxpayer funding – they receive on average only 70% of the funding provided to traditional public schools. While educational quality isn’t purely a matter of funding, funding does matter. At NAPCS, we work at all levels of government to increase charter school support among presidents, governors, mayors, legislators and regulators. We benefit from having strong supporters among the Democratic and Republican parties (including presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama). However, we also face resistance from factions within each party. Solidifying our support on both sides of the aisle and leveraging support into greater funding remains a top government relations priority.

Constant effort reaps rewards

Making progress on each of these goals requires a constant effort to build public support and rebut criticisms of public charter schools. Most public schools lack the resources to promote their own good work. The NAPCS spends a great deal of time and resources bringing media attention to charter school success stories and rebutting false or misleading criticism. As the unified voice of the public charter school movement in the nation’s capital, we also seek to make legislators aware of the importance of charter schools in each of their constituencies.

Everyone involved with public charter schools has been deeply gratified by the success of our schools. We are strongly committed to replicating outstanding results for all students, and to ensuring that all parents in America have the opportunity to choose a high-quality school for their children.

1. See:
2. Ibid.
3. See: Cremata, E.M., Davis, D., et al. (2013) “National Charter School Study 2013”. Available at:
4. See:
5. See, for example: Headden, S. (2012) “A town turned classroom: how afocus on farming saved a rural Kansas school”. Available at:
6. Jordan, S. (2005) “How can we reduce conflict between charter schools and school districts?” Available at:
7. See, for example:
8. See, for example: Ash, K. (2014) “New NYC mayor rescinds co-location agreement with some charter schools”. Available at:
9. See, for example: Bakken, J. (2013) “17,000 New York City parents and students march for public charter schools”. Available at: http://www.pienetwork.
10. See, for example: Staff writer (2014) “Thousand brave cold in Albany to take sides in charter school vs. pre-K debate”. Available at:

Category: Spring 2014

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