This is the second 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 this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the other essays here, here, here, and here.
Supporting charter schools requires tough love. It isn’t enough to create them and let kids attend them. They also need to be run with integrity; their books need to balance; their pupils must be safe; and above all, their academic achievement has to be strong, especially when gauged by student growth.
Some of America’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of its worst. Averaging across all 6,800 of them, some critics declare that their performance is roughly equal to their district counterparts. But such a superficial analysis ignores their variability—the reality that they range from dismal to superb. Let’s look a little more closely.
A quarter-century in, charter schools are still absent from seven states, and seventeen other jurisdictions have fewer than fifty each. Forty-four states have charter-enabling laws on the books, but...