K-12 Charter Schools

As covered in The Horizon Report-2014 (Johnson, et al., 2014 p. 29) New models of education are bringing unprecedented competition to schools, especially for students whose needs are not being well served by the current system. Charter and online schools have particularly gained traction in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia. It is within these schools that most of the innovative education and learning programs can be found. The following is a sampling of progressive charter schools:

Acton Academy

High Tech High


Khan Academy 

Summit Public Schools

Success Academy

New Classrooms

As of 2015 there were 50.1 million students attending 98,817 public schools; 2.9 million students attending 6,700 charter schools (5.7%); 4.9 million students attending 30,861 private schools; and 1.8 million students being home schooled (see: Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning report – 2015) (Kpk12). California alone has 1,184 charter schools – almost a fifth of all charters in the U.S. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools  during the 2013-14 school-year there were approximately 1,043,311 students on waiting lists (NAPCS 2014). Most states also offer and encourage enrollment in online courses, and some states are requiring that students complete them in order to graduate (1).


Charter Rules

Charter school laws exist in 42 states and the District of Columbia, and most of these states have charter schools operating as of 2015–16. Alabama just passed its charter school law in 2015, and charter schools have not yet opened; and in Washington State the charter school law was found to be unconstitutional in September 2015, leaving the fate of charter schools there uncertain (Kpk12).

The state charter school laws vary widely in how many charter schools they allow, who authorizes charter schools, and the authorizing process. The result is that the number of charter schools and the percentage of students they serve varies widely by state (see: CDE Charter Schools). By far, the majority of charter schools are authorized by their local school district. That school district is then the authorizer. Some authorizers have well defined charter policies and procedures. (see: California Charter School Association)

California has the most students in charter schools, and Arizona has the highest percentage of its students in charter schools of any state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, at 14%. The number of charter schools and the number of students attending charter schools has been growing steadily overall and in many individual states, although not all (Kpk12).

Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991. California was second, in 1992. As originally conceived, the ideal model of a charter school was as a legally and financially autonomous public school without tuition, religious affiliation, or selective student admissions that would operate much like a private business – free from many state laws and district regulations, and accountable more for student outcomes rather than for processes or inputs such as Carnegie Units and teacher certification requirements (retrieved from Wikipedia 8/7/2016).

Between 2009 and 2012, the percent of charter schools implementing performance-based compensation increased from 19 percent to 37 percent, while the proportion that is unionized decreased from 12 percent to 7 percent. The educational focus is broken down as follows:

  • College preparation (30 percent)
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (8 percent)
  • Core Knowledge (16 percent)
  • Blended Learning (6 percent) and
  • Virtual/Online learning (2 percent)

When compared to traditional public schools, charters were visioned to serve a more disadvantaged student population, including more low-income and minority students. Sixty-one percent of charter schools serve a student population where over 60 percent qualify for the federal Free or Reduced Lunch Program. Charter schools receive an average 36 percent less revenue per student than traditional public schools, and receive no facilities funds. The number of charters providing a longer school day grew from 23 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2012 (Rebarber, 2014).

Many students do not formally attend either type of school; NEPC reports that nearly 3% of the school-age population was homeschooled during the 2010-11 school year (see: Homeschooling). Ninety-one percent of the parents of these children cited concern over the environments of traditional and charter schools when asked about their choice (2). For school leaders and policy makers, the challenge is to meet such competition head on, offering high-quality alternatives to students who need them. As new platforms emerge, there is a growing need to frankly evaluate models and determine how to best support collaboration, interaction, deep learning experiences, and assessment at scale. (See: Developing a Start-up Charter School Program)

As a wicked challenge, the impact of alternative schooling on traditional institutions is multi-faceted. These new models:

  • Often tout smaller classes
  • More personalized attention from teachers
  • Better access to high-caliber tools and technologies

While innovative new pedagogies and ways of thinking are challenging traditional paradigms, some pundits are concerned that the competition is not being fueled by the altruistic desires to improve learning experiences, but instead by where more money is being invested. Innovation Ohio, for example, analyzed data from the Ohio Department of Education and reported that in 2012, $774 million was deducted from public school budgets to fund charter schools across the state.

Furthermore, over 40% of the state funding for charter schools was transferred from public districts that performed better than them on the Performance Index Score (3). While this does not say that one model is superior to the other, it does reflect a shift in the way public schools are valued. Charter schools are often reported to foster more innovation, emphasizing authentic, project-based learning models and 1:1 technology programs, justifying greater monetary investments in the eyes of funders (4).

  1. http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1137&context=dissertations
  2. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=91
  3. http://innovationohio.org/2013/02/14/report-unfair-funding-how-charterschools-win-traditional-schools-lose
  4. http://www.uscrossier.org/ceg/products-and-services/promising-practicescompendium


Issues in the Sector

Because of digital technology these blended and virtual learning schools (see: K-12 Virtual Education) are expanding in K-12 education but not without problems and controversy. Miron and Gulosino (2016), in a recent study: “Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review,” for the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), reported that in the school year 2013-2014, 262,000 students in 33 states were enrolled in 447 full-time virtual schools that deliver all instruction online while another 26,155 students across 16 states were enrolled in 87 blended schools, which combine traditional face-to-face and online instruction (p. 3). Virtual and blended schools continue to grow at a rapid pace in spite of weak academic outcomes. The four-year graduation rate in 2014-15 was 40.6 percent for full-time virtual schools and 37.4 percent for blended schools, compared to 81 percent for the nation as a whole. In recent years, despite rising enrollment numbers, the cyber charter sector has come under scrutiny for poor performance and management. On several measures virtual and blended schools perform poorly when compared to traditional public schools, according to the new study.


The State of California Charters

A four-part series by Carol Burris

  1. How messed up is California’s charter school sector? You won’t believe how much
  2. Why California’s charter school sector is called the Wild West
  3. A tangled web of for-profit companies and non-profit schools in charter world
  4. The shine is off the charter school movement

It was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education. She was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Her four-part series will be part of an extended national report on charter schools that will be published by the Network for Public Education in 2017.