Charter Schools Are a Boon For Students

For National Charter School Week, we peek into the model and its pros and cons

Education is always a hot topic. Whether it’s U.S. News releasing its annual list of top high schools, or a debate over private schools versus home schools, everyone has an opinion on education, because of its importance and cost. In an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study from 2014, the United States spends $12,731 per student on secondary education–only four countries spend more. There’s another way for kids to do school that’s a bit outside the ordinary, and that’s attend a charter school. While they aren’t as accessible as public schools, they aren’t as costly as private schools–and about 3 million kids in the U.S. right now are experiencing a charter school education.

How Do Charter Schools Work?

Charters are public schools. They’re funded through tax dollars, do not charge tuition and are open to all comers. (Space is limited, however.) Charter schools operate independently of local school districts and have more freedom to innovate. The idea is to help advance student achievement by letting teachers experiment with different methods and curricula.

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. Today, nearly 3 million kids (or about 20 percent of school children) are enrolled in 6,723 schools across the country.

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says this growth is primarily parent-driven.

“The demand for charter schools has grown in tandem with the growth of charter schools,” Rees said. “We now have over 1 million student names on charter school waitlists, so unfortunately we are not growing these schools fast enough to meet the demand in the field.”

How Do Charter Schools Compare to Traditional Public Schools?

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, out of the 16 studies that have been published on charter school performance since 2010, “15 out of 16 found that students in charter schools do better in school than their traditional school peers.” Right now three of the top 10 public schools in the country are charter schools, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Charter school success is due to fewer regulations, freeing up teachers and administrators to find creative, innovative ways to educate children.

“To the extent a school is not meeting the needs of a student, charters can be an attractive alternative,” Rees said. “The more parents are exposed to options, the better they will be able to find a school that best suits their child’s needs.”

For example, Harding Fine Arts Academy (HFAA) is a charter school in Oklahoma City that “focuses on the integration of arts and academics.” Students take classes in core subjects like math, English, science and social studies but then can select elective classes geared towards fine arts, like dance, music, theatre, or visual arts programs.

“We’re very elective heavy for a school our size, which means that our students get a wide range of opportunities to take classes that they wouldn’t be able to in a traditional public school setting,” said Principal Barry Schmelzenbach.

The Alaska Native Cultural Charter School (ANCCS) is a charter school that “combines Alaska Native language, culture, history, and traditional practices into an inquiry- and standards-based educational program for the students and families of Anchorage, Alaska.” This school offers children a unique opportunity to embrace Alaskan heritage while pursuing their education simultaneously. When it opened the school served “nearly 100 percent economically disadvantaged and more than 50 percent Alaska Native student body.”

Why Aren’t There More Charter Schools?

If charter schools are so popular, why aren’t there more of them? Advocates of charter schools say some states resist change because they think charter schools “take” money from “regular” public schools thereby hurting those students.

Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) has for the last two years spearheaded the movement to expand charter schools. Virginia currently has nine charters, and local school boards have the last word. Obenshain has sponsored legislation that would have let voters approve charters, but Republicans killed the bill in February.

“The teachers union and VEA statewide leadership, more than grassroots teachers, has engaged in extensive lobbying against charter schools and it’s been successful,” Obenshain told Opportunity Lives.

Despite this, Obenshain says union resistance has been upstaged by the success of one charter school in Virginia Beach. The teachers union lobbied against it, arguing parents and teachers weren’t interested. Yet when it opened, Obenshain said the school “had teachers beating down the doors to teach there and kids lining the block to be enrolled.”

Still, Obenshain plans on continuing his quest to widen the path for more charter schools to Virginia.

“What people need to see is charter schools bring innovation and creativity to education in a way that the one-size-fits-all model does not,” Obenshain said. “Right now we’re determining the equality of our education by ZIP code. In some cases we’re providing better education and some worse. By rejecting charter schools we’re saying that’s OK. And that’s not OK.”

Nicole Russell is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @nmrussell2.