The number of schools operating under charter school laws has soared over the last decade, from a small number operating in just a few states to more than 2,300 schools serving over 575,000 students in 34 states and the District of Columbia. More than half of these schools are concentrated in a few states -- Arizona has over 400 charter schools, and California, Florida, Michigan, and Texas each has more than 150.
Charter schools are relatively autonomous schools of choice that operate under a charter or contract issued by a public entity such as a local school board, public university, or state board of education. In theory, these contracts, usually lasting three-to-five years, provide school operators more autonomy than afforded a district-run public school in exchange for enhanced accountability by requiring schools to prove they are worthy of succeeding contracts.
The Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a review of the research on charter schools. This CPRE Policy Brief summarizes some key findings of our review.
It is important to note that charter schools are an institutional innovation, meaning the laws allow schools to operate under a different structure. Charter school laws are not an attempt to endorse any particular learning approach or curriculum in the schools. Ted Kolderie, one of the creators of the charter school concept, explains that, "…the chartered school is not a kind of school; not a A Decade of Charter Schools: From Theory to Practice By Katrina Bulkley and Jennifer Fisler learning program or method. The opportunity the law provides is an empty institutional structure, as a building is an empty physical structure. Students learn from what the organizers put into it" (personal communication, October 25, 2001). Thus, in comparing schools operating under charter school laws with those directly operated by public school districts, it is necessary to consider the substantial variation under the charter school umbrella.