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The Debate - Charter Schools Spark Reform

Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform, discusses how charter school innovations have improved options for all children.

When the first charter school opened its doors to Minnesota students in 1992, few could have predicted that it would mark the beginning of what would become the fastest growing and most significant reform in modern education.

Charter pioneers sparked a wildfire of reform that swept the nation, fueled by parents who refused to accept a one-size-fits-all approach to education — parents who set high standards and demanded accountability in meeting them. Education was changing — one child and one school at a time.

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Major changes in public policy would follow — from standards, to curriculum, to more choices for parents and more options for children. And a changing legislative landscape paved the way for the significant growth of charter schools.

Today, there are nearly 3,000 charter schools serving close to 800,000 students in 37 states and the District of Columbia. And in most cases, these schools are meeting the needs of at-risk and disadvantaged children long-since abandoned by many traditional schools. Parents wait anxiously for an opportunity for their children to benefit from the innovation and flexibility charters provide. In fact, over 70 percent of charters across the country have waiting lists equal to their enrollment.

Free of bureaucratic and regulatory micro-management, charter schools can design and deliver programs tailored to educational excellence and community needs. Charters offer at-risk programs and state-of-the-art education. In charter schools, you'll find teachers that are there because they want to be, because they have more authority over the programs and approaches they use than they did in all their years in traditional public schools.

This year a number of charter schools reached a milestone - the graduation of the very first class of students who were with them from the beginning. Schools such as Washington, DC's SEED Public Charter School and the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School; Newark's North Star Academy; San Jose's Downtown College Prep and Dorchester (MA)'s South Boston Harbor Academy Charter School watched as their first classes received diplomas. And one hundred percent of their students — yes, each and every one — have been accepted to college. These charter schools have proven that high levels of achievement are not reserved for elite prep schools. Schools serving overwhelmingly minority and low-income students can set equally high standards — and they can, indeed, meet them.

Charters have been like pebbles, causing ripples in their wake leading schools to improve offerings.

But it is not just students inside these schools who have benefited from the charter movement. Charters have been like pebbles, causing ripples in their wake leading schools and districts to alter behavior or improve offerings. Studies out of charter-rich states such as Arizona and California show that charters are producing innovations that are being adopted by the traditional schools in their districts. And in some districts, increased student achievement in neighbor public schools suggests charter competition is raising the bar for all schools.

As we celebrate the progress of the charter school movement — and the individual successes at schools such as Amistad — we are also reminded that there remain far too many children who grow up in this country without the educational opportunities they deserve. The wildfire of education reform will not — and cannot — slow down until each and every child can share in the success.

The Center for Education Reform (CER) is a national advocacy and research organization working with states and communities to provide more choices in education and better schools for all children. For additional information, visit

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