07/03/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Charting New Frontiers for Charter Schools

As leaders of the charter school movement gather in Washington, D.C. this week for their annual meeting, they do so in a decidedly mixed frame of mind. harles Dickens' famous words in A Tale of Two Cities -- "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" -- could never be more appropriate for this sector of American K-12 education.

On the one hand, charter schools are booming, with a wait list of parents nearly 1 million strong. They have proven their value, with the choice they offer students and their families contributing to higher teacher quality overall and greater transparency in the school districts in which they operate, leading to better educational experiences for U.S. students, with much still to be done.

On the other hand, charter schools are to some degree a victim of their own success, and most certainly they have become captive to high expectations. Just a week ago, a group called CREDO at Stanford University released its quadrennial study on charter school performance. It was research riddled with questionable assumptions -- far from charter school performance gospel -- but it garnered coverage, in The New York Times, Associated Press and elsewhere.

Indeed, it seems that everyone is eager to learn as much they can about charter school performance. The good thing is that charters have moved beyond curiosities; they are full-fledged players in our national quest to turn around what so many agree had become abysmal school performance and unreliable education outcomes.

At The Center for Education Reform, we are pleased and proud to see the success of charter schools. Our own founding in Washington, D.C. 20 years ago came just a few months after charter schools were born, in Minneapolis. Back then, Minneapolis and a few other urban school districts formed the charter school frontier, occasional outposts of good intentions in a sea of mediocrity.

Some charter schools, to be frank, were born out of desperation. Parents in certain cities were so frustrated with school performance that working in concert with us at the Center they led a revolution against the status quo. These grassroots efforts eventually pushed political leaders to aggressively launch charter schools, or at least to stand aside to allow them to be created.

We attribute part of our success to "Parent Power," which means giving parents Access to quality educational Options and providing them with good Information to make smart decisions about their children's education. Our Parent Power Index measures the ability in each state of a parent to exercise choices -- no matter what their income or child's level of academic achievement - engage with their local school and board, and have a voice in the systems that surround their child. The Parent Power Index is our vision for the next generation of "Parent Power."

Of course, now that charter schools are turning 21-years-old, it's only logical that they are maturing into young adulthood. In areas where charter schools are well-known and high-performing, an annual waiting list has become common, each year longer than the last.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than two-thirds of charters -- 67 percent -- across the nation reported having children on their waitlist, with an average waiting list of 214 students. A record 29 charter schools reported waitlists of 2,000 students or more for the 2012-13 school year.

As the Alliance reasoned last week, families who are faced with traditional public schools unable to meet their needs seek better options for their children by applying to public charter schools. And in urban communities that have few, if any, high-quality public school options, the demand for charters can be significantly higher than there are seats available. As a result, families often apply to multiple charter schools hoping to increase their odds.

But just as some 21-year-olds are late bloomers in their development, charter schools have been slow to blossom in certain communities in the U.S. The reasons for this are as varied as the communities they have yet to reach or where they have a very limited foothold. These are the new frontiers for charter schools and, in some ways they are the most exciting places for the charter school movement. That's because they are beginning to write a new charter school narrative.

Until recently, the charter school story had been fairly straightforward. In poor-performing school districts with charter school options, parents were voting with their feet and sending -- or at least attempting to send -- their children to charter schools in their communities. This was a rational parent reaction to the decision before them. Since traditional public schools were not working to serve the needs of students, those responsible for the development of those students were logically looking to pursue options that will work.

Some communities, however, have been resistant to charter schools, period. This has been due, in many cases, to the power of entrenched political interests, who see charter schools as a threat to the status quo. When the status quo is viewed as an unqualified success, as many communities promote their school systems to be, then it is naturally difficult to change the course of school district policies to permit charter schools to be part of the education equation.

When a school district achieves a strong reputation, spurring parents who care deeply about their child's education to move there, then the die becomes cast, seemingly forever. The imagery helps you see where the phrase "riding on a reputation" comes from.

Today's generation of parents though, is far too savvy and discerning to allow any school district -- or any individual school -- to ride on a reputation. These parents were for the most part moving through the K-12 system as students themselves at the same time that the "Nation at Risk" report was issued, a seminal moment in the education reform movement. These parents experienced firsthand as children, therefore, what seemed to be the inevitable decline of American education.

Unlike their own parents, however, who seemed resigned to the decline of schools around them, or viewed school choice only through the prism of moving to a new school district, the current generation of parents is impatient and demanding for better school performance right in their backyard. These parents are pushing for better schools no matter where they live, in urban school districts traditionally perceived as weak or in suburban school districts traditionally perceived as strong. Even parents in rural areas are catalyzing change, and embracing online learning (sometimes through virtual charter schools) as an acceptable alternative.

This is the new charter school frontier: a geographically and demographically diverse group of parents, united in their commitment to better schools everywhere. There is no holding these parents down; they are on the march and will not be turning back. They are both inspired and inspiring, and that's why we at The Center for Education Reform are working to ensure that the path to success is as straight and true as this new generation of "Parent Power" deserves.