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What Public Charter Schools Have Taught Us About Public Education

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Twenty years ago this month, a revolutionary new kind of school opened, forging the path for the most innovative public education reform movement in a century. City Academy High School in St. Paul, Minn. became the nation's first charter school. It was started by two teachers and a youth recreation leader who wanted to provide students at high risk of dropping out with the choice of a new type of public school that could better serve their needs.

Today, demand for public charter schools is at an all time high. More than 2,000,000 students attend charter schools, with more than 610,000 more on waiting lists. Most charter schools, more than two-thirds, are run by people just like City Academy founders -- teachers, educators, parents, and civic leaders who want to offer children and families in their communities a tuition-free public education alternative. Other charter schools are provided by organizations like KIPP and Green Dot that are replicating their school models in communities across the country.

With this growth comes greater enthusiasm for public charter schools. A new Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll shows the American public supports charter schools by a two to one margin. And the movement has been embraced by a wide swath of Americans, including Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama; business leaders Bill Gates and Craig Barrett; celebrities Bill Cosby, John Legend, and Andre Agassi; and organizations including the National Council of La Raza and the United Negro College Fund.

So what have these new kinds of public schools taught us about public education?

First, the achievement gap can be closed, and every child, regardless of where they live or their socio-economic status, can achieve at high academic levels. No longer can America view some children as un-teachable, or some families as apathetic to their children's education.

While the nation's more than 5,600 charter schools represent only 5 percent of the nation's public schools, they are disproportionally represented on US News & World Report's Best High Schools list (17 percent), Washington Post's High School Challenge Index list (25 percent), and Newsweek's Transformative High Schools list (60 percent).

And a number of studies have documented charter schools' effects on student achievement. One of the most comprehensive studies, conducted by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Thomas Kane at Harvard University, found that students in charter schools performed much better in math and reading than their district school counterparts. Another study by the RAND Corporation found that students in charter high schools graduated and attend college at a higher rate.

Second, in this hyper-partisan atmosphere, pubic charter schools are supported from legislators and politicians from both sides of the aisle. Charter schools are now offered in 41 states and Washington, D.C., providing families a choice among public schools, and giving teachers different options in where and how they teach.

In the last two years, 19 states adopted charter school legislation or strengthened their charter school laws so more high-quality public charter schools can educate children, and public education funding and resources can be more equitably available to all public schools and public school students. Across the nation, most charter schools are expected to provide a rigorous education at a much lower per-pupil funding level than traditional public schools.

And lastly, after more than 200 studies on charter schools, we've learned that we can create innovative, new, high-quality public schools that educate students and help them succeed and develop. Charter schools have broken down the barriers of who can help children learn, and how schools are organized and run, by bringing effective innovation into the teaching and learning process. Because of this, charter schools have driven many trends, including integrating and utilizing technology in effective ways; transforming how teachers and school leaders are recruited, supported, and retained; and reinventing how schools are operated and educational opportunities are provided.

Each year, approximately 400-500 new public charter schools open, and about 200,000 more public school students enroll in charter schools. Families need more public school choices so their children can get a great, free education that is well suited for their learning style. After two decades, it's clear what charter schools can accomplish. The challenge for the next 20 years is to build on these accomplishments to ensure that every child can realize the benefits of a high-quality public school education.