When they first began in 1991, charter schools were viewed by most people as an experiment in education reform.

But nearly a quarter of a century later, they have spawned a movement that has changed the face of how public schools operate around the country. Today, the number of charter schools is poised to explode as these schools give many parents a critical option for educating their children.

The name “charter school” can be confusing. Many think charter schools are private schools. They are not.

Charter schools are public schools that operate around a legislative contract with a state or governing body that exempts them from some state rules. Most importantly, the charter gives flexibility in how the schools educate students, tailoring a learning prescription to an area’s distinct student needs.

With freedom comes a trade-off for educators.

As much as charters allow schools and teachers to innovate, they must demonstrate academic performance. If the schools fail to meet the standards prescribed in their charter, states can revoke that charter after a period of time. In some areas where charters failed to deliver on their promise, they have been closed — a model of accountability that is rare in some traditional district schools.

All in the Numbers

Charter schools have proved successful overall. There are 6,440 charter schools nationwide today and that number is growing, with 42 states and the District of Columbia passing charter schools laws. California, given its size, enrolls the most charter school students of all, about 471,000. That’s about 8 percent of all public students in that state.

Charter schools now make up 5.7 percent of all public schools in the nation.

“In most states, this issue is a done deal. There isn’t much left to debate about charter schools anymore,” observed Starlee Coleman, a charter schools advocate and partner in the Washington, D.C., firm Education Forward. “They have been around for 25 years. They are doing really well. Students are thriving and parents are happy.”

The Variety

What started out as a movement to help urban schools succeed amid tough challenges and a widening achievement gap has spread to rural schools that are chartered, in some cases, around the local economy. Some are science-focused in tech-centric areas. Others embrace agriculture as a learning tool in places where farming still retains a toehold.

Those touchstones bring communitywide interests together. And despite their differences from state to state, that very independence to create a school around a unique idea showcases the broader role that charters have played in an increasingly diverse nation.

“Any person who is a parent, who has more than one child, can tell you that no two children learn the same. They are not motivated in the same way. They don’t work at the same level. So the idea that the exact same school structure, with the exact same curriculum, is going to work in every different school for every different kid in this country is outdated thinking,” said Coleman. “We need different types of schools that respond to kids’ needs in different ways.”

She added, “Some parents may want their children to be in a school where there is robust structure with uniforms and where they have certain rules in the classroom that students have to follow. Others want their kids in a Montessori school where kids learn at their own pace. Parents know what their children need. I don’t understand how anyone can think that one model is going to work for every student.”

A November study from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools tracked the growth of charter schools, calling them “the fastest-growing choice option in U.S. public education.” In the past five years alone, enrollment in public charters around the country has risen by 62 percent.

Nationwide, 14 school districts have at least 30 percent of their students attending charter schools, with the highest percentage in the District of Columbia, followed by Arizona, where charter schools make up 14 percent of total public school enrollment.

In Florida, Marlene Guzman, a first grade public school teacher, sends her daughter, who is 12, to Somerset Academy, a public charter in South Miami. Her daughter has been there from first through seventh grade and Guzman says she sees the difference a charter can bring.

Guzman chose Somerset because foreign language is mandatory (Spanish or Mandarin is offered), technology is cutting edge — homework is assigned and turned in online — and the social environment is supportive, with many parents involved. Though small, with two stories and a rooftop basketball court for physical education, the school, just two years ago, had 1,000 students on a waiting list, Guzman said.

“I feel that they personalize the education. Even though they are a part of the Dade County school system, they can do things differently. They do things that motivate.”

“I’m a teacher, also. And I can see her academic progress,” Guzman added. “I feel that they are really teaching and the things they do are a bit more advanced. I’m very happy with it.”

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