08/04/2011 01:52 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2011

Public Charter Schools Engage Students and Empower Teachers

Anyone who is serious about improving the quality of public education should support the incredible contributions of public charter schools, which are proving in community after community that all kids can learn and achieve.

Some of the most vocal critics of charter schools don't seem to understand what public charters actually are or how they work. Charter schools -- which are disproportionately located in low-income communities -- are public schools where all of the students have proactively made a choice to enroll. Similarly, teachers at charters proactively choose to teach in these schools, which often have far less red tape and more freedom to innovate.

Many charter schools are focused on closing the achievement gap between students in low-income communities and those in affluent suburbs. This is one reason that charter schools enroll more than 350,000 children in major urban centers and nearly two million students nationwide. School leaders report that another 420,000 students want the chance to enroll in a charter school.

One of the great contributions of the public charter school movement to education reform is that charters are proving every day that kids in poverty can succeed. Schools like Harlem Village Academies, Amino Leadership High in Los Angeles and Urban Prep in Chicago are making college acceptance a reality for children who are often first generation college students.

As President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, I've traveled more than 84,000 miles over the past year, visited 25 states, and talked with teachers, students and parents from hundreds of schools.

In Texas, I heard from a student who told me that his charter school had literally saved his life. Without it he knew he would have faced a future of violence and had no way out. Today, that student is on a path toward college, and every day his parents are grateful for his chance at success.

I also have heard from teachers about what drives them to work in charter schools. Charters are designed to combine creativity, innovation and a nurturing school culture to deliver academic success for all students.

Lauren Whitehead, a lead teacher at North Star Academy Charter School in Newark said, "What makes working in a charter school unique and rewarding: Mission, culture and support. Teachers receive constant support from one another and from school leaders. The support that is given through observation, feedback and professional development, helps create and maintain a strong culture centered wholly on student achievement."

In Sheridan, Oregon where a charter school has been developed to include a Japanese language immersion program, Andrew Scott says, "We are given immense freedom to explore our creativity and provide the learning environment our students deserve: nurturing, personalized and differentiated and rigorous. I have the responsibility to design and coordinate eight multi-grade, proficiency-based levels of Japanese while also teaching full-time. I design my own materials and organize the levels in the way I see fit."

Educators from Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois and many other states have reported to me that high expectations for students and teachers is critical to academic achievement. Charter school leaders also have the freedom to adopt structures and processes that are often discouraged in non-charters, like extended learning time for students and performance pay to reward teachers for outstanding results.

Charter schools are unique public schools that serve a whole community as a partnership between teachers, parents and students. These schools are always free and never have special entry requirements. We often say that families are voting with their feet when they choose to enroll a student at a charter school, because charters are always "opt-in" opportunities. Students and teachers elect charter schools, they are never forced to attend one.

Every child deserves the opportunity to attend a great public school. The charter school model is designed to make sure all charter schools are schools of excellence. To that end, the NAPCS supports closing any school -- charter or otherwise -- that isn't delivering academic results for students. We are active in all states with charter laws, helping to create an environment where school closure is handled responsibly and with as little disruption as possible for students.

Public education advocates need to act with haste on behalf of the thousands of parents who want a better opportunity for their children. The NAPCS is dedicated to ensuring the public charter school sector continues to grow, continuously improve in quality, and share its innovative practices broadly so they can benefit all students. On behalf of the 1.8 million students enrolled in more than 5,000 public charter schools, we invite all Americans who support public education to join our efforts.