Despite their controversy, charter schools are becoming more popular. As of this month, 3,300 charter schools are operating across the United States in 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Many parents and students seem unable to get enough of them. That should be no surprise: Charters have an autonomy that public schools lack. They can more easily hire and fire teachers and principals. They control their own budgets and use innovative course work and teaching methods.
Waiting lists for charter schools are now common across the country. In Boston, for instance, 6,000 students are waiting to get into that city's 15 charter schools. A recent survey shows 40 percent of all charter schools have waiting lists that, on average, are as long as the number of students in the schools, according to the National Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group in Washington. And the demand for charters is even higher in low-income urban areas.
One Brookings Institution study of 569 charters between 2000 and 2002 found that although it takes a new charter a couple of years to start producing results, its students ultimately advance more rapidly than their public school peers.
One reason for the long wait is that most states put caps on the number of charter schools, even though those schools teach just 2 percent of public schoolers nationwide. The caps are demanded by powerful teachers' unions who fear the competition and insist on their current job protection - which often keeps bad teachers on the job. Those caps usually mean existing charters can't expand, and no new ones can be created.
The 3-million-member national teachers' unions funnel a lot of money to lawmakers at the federal and state level. According to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, they've given more than $44 million to federal and state parties and candidates, mostly to Democrats.
Lawmakers in turn have given the unions strong negotiating power with schools over jobs, benefits, labor conditions, and the like. The result can often be schools that simply are more costly to run, and teachers who are often difficult to hold accountable.
Charter schools can have difficulties, too. They often attract students who've had problems in traditional school settings, and their mission may not be geared toward success on achievement tests. But when a charter school fails, it closes. In fact, a charter often has a limited time period in which to demonstrate success.
States need to lift their limitations on the charter school movement. Let the marketplace decide the success or failure of these educational alternatives. Charters are proving that education can be both academically and financially viable. They stand as a challenge to the public schools to do better and can satisfy taxpayers that their investment in children is bringing the best results.