This week marks National Charter Schools Week, an opportunity to recognize the great work being done in public charter schools around the country.
First, a primer. Charter schools are public schools, free and open to all. Charters are allowed flexibility in how they operate (the degree of flexibility varies by state), but they must meet all state achievement standards. Many charters focus their curriculum on areas such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), the arts, or, in some rural areas, agriculture. And most emphasize college-readiness.
Currently, more than 2.5 million students attend 6,400 charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia. New figures that will be released this week show that more than 1 million students' names are on waitlists around the country.
While some charters have shown uneven quality, the sector as a whole has hit a homerun.
Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charters schools are doing a better job than traditional district schools of educating low-income students, minority students, and students who are still learning English. Charter students in major cities like New York and Los Angeles are gaining the equivalent of whole months of extra learning.
This track record of success with urban, low-income, and minority students has earned charter schools wide support from both parties.
Bipartisanship is a rare commodity in Washington and state capitals these days. The fact that both Democrats and Republicans see the value in supporting charter schools shows that there's something to be said for choice and innovation in education.
This week, the organization I lead is honoring several "Champions for Charters," policymakers who have had a particularly strong influence in helping charters launch, grow, and expand to serve more students.
Among the honorees are Andrew Cuomo, New York's Democratic governor who recently joined legislators to ensure a boost in financial support for charters, particularly charters in New York City that face high operational costs.
Congressman George Miller (D-CA) will also be honored. Miller, considered one of Congress's liberal lions throughout his 40-year tenure, has been an outspoken charter advocate precisely because charters give low-income and minority students access to a top-flight education.
And Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) will be recognized for his constant commitment to the federal Charter Schools Program, which is the only public source of charter school startup funds.
The House is voting this week to reauthorize the Charter Schools Program and fund it next year at $300 million - just about 1 percent of all federal spending on k-12 education. It's hard to think of another federal education program that gets as much bang for the buck, and it's frustrating to think about how much more could be done with access to greater funding.
But charter advocates - including the millions of parents who send their children to charter schools - are grateful for all the support they receive.
Looking ahead, the charter movement is focused on a few key goals: weeding out low-performing schools and making sure every charter student is attending a high-quality school; reaching parity in funding between district schools and charter schools, which typically receive thousands of fewer dollars per pupil; and bringing charter school innovations to the broader education sector.
Charter school innovators have no desire to keep their great ideas to themselves - they want to see best practices spread to every school, so that more students can benefit.
Improving education for all students is what drives charter school leaders. Having worked in education policy for 20 years, I can tell you that some of the most passionate and dedicated people I have ever met are the leaders and teachers who are devoting countless hours to opening great schools that give new options to parents.
It's these educators - and the students and parents they serve - who deserve special appreciation during National Charter Schools Week.