Charter School Movement Still Going Strong After 25 Years

Teresa Mull, 

Twenty-five years ago, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to enact legislation allowing charter schools.

A year after the law passed, City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota became the first charter school to open its doors in the United States.

Milo Cutter, the director at City Academy and one of its founders, says the idea to start the school originated with the students.

“The reason we started the school was because while working with the students, we heard that schools were too big and they felt lost,” Cutter said.

A 2015 study from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, titled A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities, reported, “Charter schools are the fastest-growing choice option in U.S. public education. Over the past five years, student enrollment in charter public schools has grown by 62 percent. In 43 states and the District of Columbia, more than 2.9 million students now attend charter schools—which is more than six percent of the total number of students enrolled in all public schools.”

‘Massive Explosion in Opportunities’

Robert C. Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, says the credit for the continued growth of charter schools belongs to the people who started the schools and those who spurred the conversation about school choice.

“If you look back to 25 years ago, when there were no charter schools and no real private school choice programs, and you fast-forward to today, [you can see] the massive explosion in opportunities for families and particularly for families from low-income backgrounds,” Enlow said. “[Charter schools] were really the beginning of the dialogue of ‘what a family wants should come first.’ Now, we’re having conversations about course choice, about competency-based education, about micro-schooling. There are all of these conversations happening, and I think that’s because of charter and private school choice.”

Progress and Setbacks

Cutter says there have been both good and bad changes in the charter school movement over the years. 

“The funding has gotten better,” Cutter said. “Our first two years, it wasn’t [the case] the money follows the child. That has definitely changed for the better.”

Cutter says the most disappointing development in the charter school movement has been the increase in regulation. 

“If you look at some instances, the paperwork has increased threefold at least,” Cutter said. “That’s probably the biggest [negative change]; it’s kind of an institutional creep. It’s slowly requiring the charters to look more and more like district schools.”

books_small Charter School Movement Still Going Strong After 25 Years

‘Long Way to Go’

Dr. Terry Moe—a professor at Stanford University, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and coauthor of Politics, Markets and America’s Schools—says politics is the main challenge to charter schools.

“The expansion of the charter system in each state is really a function of decisions that are made in the political process,” Moe said.

Moe says the movement’s political opponents, especially the teachers unions and many public school districts, have taken action over the past 25 years to try to stifle development of charter schools.

“That’s the main reason we don’t have more charter schools today,” Moe said. “After 25 years, we have about 6 percent of the kids nationwide in charter schools. That’s not much. … The numbers are often negligible, so I think the charter movement has a long way to go before it achieves its potential and really brings change to the education system.”

Moe says the more charter schools there are, the more parents, students, and those who run the schools there are, and they have a vested interest in protecting the schools and standing up to those who oppose charter schools.

Charter Challenges

Enlow says the challenge is establishing “really good choice programs where the money really does follow the kids, and not just some of the money, all of the money.”

“One of the challenges in this movement is how much are we really impacting this system as a whole?” Enlow said. “The real fight here is funding … going forward … to have a rational, sane conversation about school funding formulas.”

Enlow says charter proponents still have a marketing challenge.

“It’s 25 years on, and still large chunks of the American public don’t know what a charter school is,” Enlow said. “We have a lot of information sharing to do.”

‘Pretty Good Place to Be’

Enlow says despite the challenges charter schools face, he says the current situation “is a pretty good place to be.”

“This is a real renaissance for education in America,” Enlow said. “We have a lot more opportunities than we used to have. The great benefit of charter schools and private school choice programs to society is that [they begin] to allow families the freedom to go to a school that works best for them based on their child’s needs. It really does break up the assignment of schools by ZIP code.”

Moe says charter schools are providing an alternative to traditional public schools, many of which are performing poorly, especially in urban areas.

“[Charters] provide families with much-needed choices,” Moe said. “Families are no longer trapped. You actually have choices in the public school system. If the regular public school is not providing you what you want, maybe then there are charter schools that will.”

“For those who don’t know much about charters, I would say in every aspect of our lives we have the freedom to pick what we want to do, and now in education, we have that same freedom,” Enlow said.

Teresa Mull (tmull@heartland.orgis an education research fellow for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News.