Twenty years after their creation, charter schools constitute the fastest-growing sector of American public education, according to a report released Wednesday.
Enrollment in these publicly funded but often privately run institutions rose by more than 200,000 students in the 2011-2012 school year compared to the previous year, the report found. That increasing enrollment has yielded a total of more than 2 million students in charter schools -- about 5 percent of the number of kids in public schools across the country.
The report is an annual attempt by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group, to track the trajectory of these schools and their market share in different places. The number of charter school students has ballooned in cities like New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Mo., and Flint, Mich. -- the five districts with the highest percentage of charter school students, according to the report. And for the first time, 25 school districts have 20 percent or more of their students in charter schools -- up from just six districts in the school year 2005-2006. More than 100 school districts have 10 percent of their students enrolled in charter schools.
"What surprised me most were the cities and towns that don't often get mentioned with regards to charter schools," said Nina Rees, a former George W. Bush education undersecretary who now leads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "The numbers are trending our way."
But that growth, some experts say, comes at a price. Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, has been hired by several states to evaluate their charter schools. According to Miron, charters have strayed from their original design as small, innovative pilot schools that gain flexibility by avoiding bureaucratic hindrances like district-imposed curricula and unionized teachers. These days, 42 percent of charter students attend schools that are managed by franchises known as education management organizations (EMOs), Miron said.
"Instead of having more niche, innovative schools, we're seeing larger and larger schools," he said. "This is being driven by the private EMOs, who continue to grab a larger portion of the market share." Miron anticipates that within a few years, fully half of charter students will attend the bigger schools.
The overall growth of charter schools received another boost in last week's election with the passage of two ballot initiatives. In Georgia, a wide majority reinstated a board that authorized charters, and in Washington state, a narrow majority supported a measure to allow creation of the state's first charter schools (though the Secretary of State has not yet certified the results). Speaking at a panel discussion last week, education scholar Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said these victories show that charter schools are no longer politically toxic.
Still, Rees said she anticipates individual districts continuing to battle charter school applications. (School districts traditionally have argued that charter schools siphon off needed funds from the budgets of other public schools.) "Unfortunately, a lot of school districts still view charter schools as a threat to their autonomy and power when, in fact, we see it as an opportunity for them to bring out-of-the-box thinking to education," Rees said.
Charter schools have widespread support in the federal government. Even during the notoriously gridlocked 112th Congress, the House of Representatives last year passed a law to expand charter schools by a vote of 365 to 54. The recently reelected President Barack Obama is also a fan: His Race to the Top competition encouraged the creation of more charter schools in states that sought extra stimulus cash.
Yet a stream of research has shown that, on average, charter schools don't outperform traditional public schools. The most cited study, conducted by Stanford University, found that "in the aggregate charter schools are not advancing the learning gains of their students as much as traditional public schools." Charter schools located in cities, particularly New York City, tend to perform better, and some franchises, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, perform particularly well.
"Scaling up sheer numbers is very different than scaling up schools that show promise to be both effective and sustainable," said Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "Let's not confuse more with better."
Even some charter school advocates have begun to question whether unchecked growth is healthy. In 2011, the California Charter Schools Association called on local districts to discontinue 10 charter schools it identified as having "consistent academic underperformance."
As charters grow in number, Miron said, they become harder to track. When he audited charter schools in Michigan, he said, the state education department couldn't even tell him how many such schools existed. "In Michigan or Ohio, they grew so rapidly [that] by the time the authorizers realized things weren't going well, it was hard to implement new requirements on the schools to get them to be more accountable," he said.
Arizona, California, Florida, Ohio and Texas have the largest number of charter schools, according to the alliance's report, and, among them, added 10 more districts with charter schools over the last year. According to Miron, Ohio passed a law to track the schools' performance, but a state audit found the measure was underfunded.
"Ohio grew incredibly fast and didn't have enough people to do the oversight," Miron said. "Schools were preparing the reports, and people weren't even reading them."