U.S. Charter School Enrollment Hits Milestone, But Questions Remain


Photo courtesy of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

More and more students are attending charter schools in the United States, but performance results from these independent schools are still a mixed bag.

Two million of the nation’s schoolchildren — about 4.5 percent — now attend a charter school, according to new findings from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That’s a 13 percent uptick in charter school enrollment over last year, the largest single-year increase ever recorded.

“This 2 million student mark is quite significant,” Ursula Wright, interim CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement. “It demonstrates increased demand by families who want to see more high quality education options for their children.”

However, there is much debate over the effectiveness of charter schools. A 2009 Stanford University study in 16 states found that on average, charter schools were not performing as well as their traditional public-school peers. Comparisons of math and reading scores revealed that 17 percent of charter schools showed better academic results than comparable public schools, while 37 percent underperform.

Charter schools are funded by public dollars but operate independently from many of the laws and mandates that govern traditional public schools. For that reason, many charter schools have been able to explore new academic territory and alter learning methods that educators say weren’t working, and more than 400,000 students remain on waitlists to enroll in charters. Sixteen states have removed caps on the number of charter schools that may be established within their borders, a move the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Education support.

High-profile charter schools like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, as well as films about the education movement such as “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” sparked national debates over the merit of charters and their impact on the education landscape. Opponents say that charter schools take away money that could be used to improve public schools, and that many charter schools have the luxury of turning away students with severe learning challenges or discipline problems. In addition, some of the strongest performing charter schools, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program network, rely on significant fundraising from the private sector.

“I think there are good charters and bad charters,” Cheryllyn Branch, principal of Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Washington, D.C., told the NewsHour in 2009. “I really do feel that there’s room at the table, but I don’t think to designate that an entire city be charter-ized makes any sense. Good schools make sense for every child.”

See different takes on the charter schools in this Learning Matters online conversation.

Also a NewsHour report looks at the I-LEAD charter school in Reading, Pa., that seeks to attract and mentor students at risk of dropping out or who already have, but are willing to give it another try:

Watch another report on how a voucher program in Indiana allows families to choose religious schools, charter schools and public schools in neighboring districts for their children as part of an effort to provide more options when graduation rates are low:

Watch Indiana Crafts Dropout Remedy Through Choice of Schools on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.

And a charter school in New York City started to teach children and teens with autism:

Watch Autism Now: Demand for Educational Resources for Children Outstrips Supply on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.

Browse more education-related stories, and resources for students and teachers on our Extra site.