The authors discuss charter schools for their 20-plus years of existence. They include the istoric phenomena that have resulted in the unusual development of charter schools due to political pressures, social events, and the media. Explanation of operations and growth of charter schools includes a discussion of high-success charter schools, the Minnesota experience as the first state with a charter-school law, and the national charter-school scene, which includes evaluative criteria of accountability, efficiency, competition, innovation, choice, and autonomy.
As charter schools evolved following vouchers and magnet schools as concepts of choice for Americas parents, City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, became the birthplace of charter schools in the United States in 1991. Minnesota also passed the first charter-school law, still ranked as the number one such law in the nation by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS, 2013). State Senator Ember Reichgott, then assistant majority leader of the Minnesota Senate and the principal author of the bill, spoke eloquently about charters on the senate floor in 1991, stating that charter schools were born of a vision that parents and teachers would create a new and different school to better meet the needs of students (Junge, 2012). Since that time, Reichgott has continued to promote charter schools as a speaker and writer.
A little more than 20 years later, in 2013, more than 5,600 charter schools exist in 39 states. Estimates of attendance range from as many as 2 million students in attendance (Junge, 2012) to 1.3 million students (NAPCS, 2013). These charters are publicly financed and tuition-free but operate independently from traditional school district governance. Because they operate under individual state laws, no national definition fits all charter schools. In most states, tuition is not allowed, but parents can be assigned fund-raising responsibilities. In about two decades, the charter school concept has gone from being the poster child for school reform to becoming a part of the establishment, with state and national associations well-staffed with lobbyists and public relations personnel and enormous support from mainstream media, politicians, and well-heeled foundations.
Qualitative and quantitative research data about charter schools are limited. Many headlines include spectacular claims about fantastic gains made by students in charter schools; however, these headlines usually apply to a very small number of schools and limited periods of time. Further, so many changes occur in these schools due to closings and management shifts that little longitudinal data exist. Simon (2013) noted that because charters exist outside of nearly all governmental, religious, ethical, or academic authority, unbiased qualitative evaluation of their operations is almost nonexistent.
Some former think tanks for school reform have become outspoken advocates for charter schools. The Obama administration, through Education Secretary Duncan, placed successful charters in a key posture in education reform. For example, in the administrations Race to the Top state-competitive program to share in $4.35 billion, states lost points if they did not have a permissive law for charters.
Historic Phenomena in the Unusual Development of Charter Schools
Before 1980, the issue of school choice a la vouchers and charters was viewed negatively by the mainstream media and most elected politicians as a mechanism to allow White students and their parents to escape school desegregation (Ravitch, 2010). What then has changed? Several historic phenomena began to converge in the 1980s, and that convergence continues and intensifies in 2013. These include
1. The disillusionment of liberal state and national legislators and federal judges with public educations ability or inclination to solve the perceived education-equity issues, especially as related to poverty and race;