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The Role of Charter Schools in Closing the Gap
Charter schools are uniquely positioned to contribute to this effort. Charter schools are public, but they operate with greater autonomy than many non-charter public schools. States vary in their charter school laws9 but, in general, these schools are exempted from many state regulations in exchange for explicit accountability for results, spelled out in the terms of their charter or contract with a state-approved authorizing (i.e., oversight) agency. Under these conditions of increased autonomy, school communities can mobilize to work together in new ways to achieve success. Compared to regular public schools, they often have greater control of their budgets, greater discretion over hiring and staffing decisions, and greater opportunity to create innovative programs.
Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, puts it this way: "Charter schools are giving administrators the freedom to innovate, teachers the ability to be creative, parents the chance to be involved, and students the opportunity to learn—creating a partnership that leads to improved student achievement."10
The first charter school legislation was passed in Minnesota in 1991, and, as of as of October 2005, there were some 3,625 charter schools serving 1,076,964 students in 40 states and Washington, D.C. Of these, approximately 21 percent (761) are high schools and 27 percent (978) combine middle and high school.11 A recent survey of charter schools by the National Charter School Research Project concluded that "nationally, charter schools serve a larger proportion of minority and low-income students than is found in traditional public schools, a characteristic due largely to the disproportionate number of charter schools located in urban areas."12