Academic journal article Education Next

Charter Politics: Why Some Places Have More Students in Charter Schools and Others Have Fewer

Academic journal article Education Next

Charter Politics: Why Some Places Have More Students in Charter Schools and Others Have Fewer

Article excerpt

By most measures, the charter school reform movement has been remarkably successful. Since the first law authorizing charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991, 39 other states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have all adopted legislation supporting public charters. Today, more than 1.2 million U.S. school children attend more than 4,000 public charter schools.

But the success of the charter school movement has been as uneven as it has been widespread (see Figure 1). There are remarkable differences in the number of charter schools and enrollment between states, and even between school districts within the same state. Take Arizona and Minnesota. The two states were early leaders in the charter school movement, both passing legislation highly favorable to the establishment and support of charter schools. Yet, in the 2005-06 school year, more than 10 percent of Arizona's enrollment was in charter schools, while only 3 percent of Minnesota students attended a charter school.

The patchwork pattern of success for the charter school movement in the United States raised two big questions in our minds. What factors led some states to grant charter schools a great deal of latitude and provide solid financial support, while others adopted less permissive legislation? And, why, even among states with similar enabling legislation, do charter schools flourish in some places but not in others?

Several well-regarded researchers have tried to explain the differences in charter school legislation. We decided to build on their work, in an effort to produce a more complete account of the politics of the charter school movement. Like those conducting the previous studies, we considered the role of state demographics and party politics. We also used new data to see whether the academic performance of students in traditional public schools and the influence of teachers unions affect the strength of charter school legislation in a state. But this was only one part of our larger project. Marshalling demographic, financial, political, and school performance data from 1990 to 2004, we took the novel step of assessing patterns in the presence of charter schools and in their enrollments at both the state and local levels.


Our Approach

The first thing we needed to do was identify U.S. charter schools and their locations and determine their enrollments. The most recent comprehensive catalog of charter schools and school enrollments is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Common Core of Data. We combined the NCES file with the Center for Education Reform (CER) directory of charter schools to create a master database of 3,066 schools for the 2003-04 school year. Next, we calculated the total number of charter schools and the total enrollment in charters and traditional public schools in each school district. In all, at least 1,000 of the 14,000 districts in the U.S. contained at least one charter school.

With this information in hand, we set out to answer three questions about the charter school movement at the state level. One, why did some states pass charter laws earlier than others? To answer this question, we first studied how D.C. and the 37 states that passed charter laws before 1999 differed from the remaining states that had not adopted charter laws by 1999. For the 40 states that passed a charter law by the 2003-04 school year, we also investigated how earlier and later adopters, grouped by year of the law's enactment, differ from one another. We wanted to know, for instance, how Minnesota, the state that passed the nation's first charter school law in 1991, is different from Maryland, which passed the most recent enabling legislation in 2003.

Two, we wondered why some states enacted laws highly favorable to charter schools while others passed more-restrictive statutes. In this part of our study, we compared states based on the rating of their laws by CER, which is an advocacy organization for charter schools. …

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