Charter Schools Against the Odds

They’re growing, despite union hostility.

Charter schools reached a new milestone this year. According to the Center for Education Reform, more than 5,000 charters are now operating in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Considering that the first charter didn’t open until 1992, and that these innovative schools have faced outright hostility from teachers unions and the education bureaucracy, their growth is a rare gleam of hope for American public schools.

More than 1.5 million students now attend charters, an 11% increase from a year ago. That’s only about 3% of all public school students, but the number has more than quadrupled in the past decade. And it would be much higher if the supply of charter schools was meeting the demand. As of June, an estimated 365,000 kids were on waiting lists.

The students who attend these schools, which are concentrated in urban areas, tend to be low-income minorities. Yet they regularly outperform their peer groups in traditional public schools often located blocks away. In their 18-year history, only 740 schools have lost their charters and been shut down for poor performance. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools must be re-authorized every few years, which means they don’t exist in perpetuity to fail multiple generations of youngsters.

Despite this record of accomplishment and accountability, the charter school movement continues to face all manner of obstacles. Eleven states ban charters, and even those that don’t can make it very hard for them to succeed and multiply. Charters typically receive less money per pupil and, unlike other public schools, they must pay for the buildings they occupy. In many states, charter enrollment is capped and only school districts—which generally oppose charter schools— are allowed to approve charter applications.

The Obama Administration has said it will withhold discretionary federal education dollars from states that block the creation and growth of charter schools. Let’s hope it follows through. We’d be hard pressed to name a more successful education reform in recent decades.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A26

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