This is the third in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published in this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the others here, here, here, here.
As noted in our first essay, chartering evolved from many theories, responded to many needs, sought to solve many problems, and embodied many hopes. These diverse tributaries flooded the charter stream with an abundance of different life forms. Yet one species has emerged at the top of the food chain, and its prominence has brought some risk to the ecosystem.
Charter schools today primarily serve poor and minority children, the kids who typically fare worst in big district school systems. Many state charter laws give priority to schools focused on at-risk students. Some states confine chartering to urban areas. And disadvantaged families typically enjoy fewer excellent school options, so they are more apt to choose charters when possible.
The “no-excuses” model has emerged as the most effective strategy for giving these kids a fresh lease...