A Commitment to Quality
National Charter School Policy Forum Report

October 2008

  • Full Report: download files PDF [1.28MB]


Charter schooling began in 1991 with an enticing promise: new public schools—with the freedom to be better and held accountable for results—could offer excellent choices for families and stimulate the entire public school system to improve. Now, more than 15 years later, charter schools are no longer an idea but also a reality. The sector has expanded to over 4,300 schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 1.2 million students—about 3 percent of all public school children. In some cities, charter schools' "market share" is even higher, exceeding 50 percent in New Orleans and 25 percent in Washington, D.C. And charter schools have not yet filled the demand for quality school choice options; tens of thousands of families are on waiting lists to enroll in charters.

From these 4,300 schools, many dramatic success stories have emerged. Consider:

  • Amistad Academy in New Haven, where 84 percent of the middle-schoolers are low-income, outperforms Connecticut's students in both reading and math based on the average state test scores, with 80–85 percent of students passing the tests.
  • During the 2006–07 school year, 100 percent of the third- and fourth—graders—90 percent of whom are from low-income families—at Carl C. Icahn Charter School in the Bronx scored proficient and above on the state mathematics exam, compared to 61 percent of third-graders and 52 percent of fourth-graders in the district.
  • According to a 2008 RAND study of Chicago's charter schools, 49 percent of eighth-grade charter school students who go on to attend a charter high school are likely to enroll in college five years later. Only 38 percent of eighth-grade charter school students who transfer to a district high school are likely to do so.

These charter schools and others like them reinforce Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon's declaration that "charter schools are providing innovative learning environments and getting results, breaking apart the myth that some kids just can't learn."

To meet the demand for quality public education for all of America's children, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has vigorously supported the expansion of school choice options. In the last eight years, ED has provided $1.8 billion in start-up money for individual schools and over $320 million in facilities funding.

Even with rapid growth and considerable success, the charter sector stands at a crossroads. Unfortunately, not all charters are as successful as Amistad and Icahn. While many charter schools are performing at the highest levels, some struggle to provide the quality education our students deserve. To a degree, this should not come as a complete surprise: any system that provides flexibility and encourages innovation will have a distribution of results. However, all successful systems, regardless of the field or industry, allow successful models to expand and replicate, enable middling performers to improve, and force persistently low performers to exit. For charter schools to have an increasingly positive impact on our nation's system of public education, all members of the charter sector must embrace academic excellence as the ultimate goal and maintain the commitment to accountability in exchange for flexibility.

At the U.S. Department of Education, we believe that charter schools can do much better, fulfilling their promise as an engine of educational innovation and quality for students across the country. We envision a charter sector in which dramatic success stories are much more common, the average charter school performs much better, struggling charters get the assistance they need to improve, and charter schools that fail to serve their students well are closed and replaced quickly by new and better schools. We envision a charter sector that is large enough and producing significant academic achievement consistently enough to exert a strong, positive effect on public education more broadly.

To realize that vision, many different actors have vital roles to play. State and district policymakers need to substantially improve the policy environment in which charter schools operate. Charter school authorizers need to enhance their capacity to approve and oversee high-quality charter schools. A range of organizations engaged in supporting charter schools need to improve the services and resources they provide and expand their ability to advocate successfully for strong charter policies. Charter schools themselves need to redouble their efforts to achieve excellence, even against the odds. And federal-level programs must continue to expand and enhance their support for a vibrant, high-quality charter sector across the United States.

In order to engage the charter school community in a discussion of these issues, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement held the National Charter School Policy Forum (Forum) in May 2008. The event gathered nearly 100 of the foremost leaders from throughout the charter sector—including charter school operators, leaders of charter support organizations, researchers, policy experts, and philanthropists and other funders—to share lessons learned and outline future directions for the charter sector.

At the Forum, the charter sector's leaders shared a vision of and vital commitment to quality—a commitment that can usher in the changes and supports necessary to create the high-quality sector that the Forum's participants envision. As Gerard Robinson, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, noted at the Forum: "Ten years ago, the word was 'innovation.' Two or three years ago the movement focused on 'accountability,' and now has moved to 'quality.'"

Drawing on discussions from the Forum and 15 years of research and experience with chartering, this report summarizes our vision of the future of the charter sector in the U.S.—and what needs to happen to achieve that vision.

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Last Modified: 10/20/2008