June 4 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Minnesota's charter school law, the nation's first. In 1990, charter pioneer Ted Kolderie foresaw that chartering would "introduce the dynamics of choice, competition, and innovation into America's public school system, while at the same time ensuring that new schools serve broad public purposes."
A quarter-century later, forty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed such laws, and 6,800 charter schools educate almost three million children. Remarkably, charters account for the entire enrollment growth in American public education since 2006. District schools actually lost students during this time, as did some private schools.
Thus far, the mission that chartering has carried out with greatest success and acclaim has been to place tens of thousands of disadvantaged children on a path to college and upward mobility. In fact, charters today primarily serve low-income children of color—the kids who typically fare worst in big-district systems. For reasons of both equity and politics, many state charter laws give priority to schools that focus on such students, while some confine chartering to core cities.
University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski put it this way: "In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor, and nonwhite, charter schools...