Charter schools are all the rage these days. The public is increasingly smitten with them in this year's Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup education poll, 68% of respondents said they support charter schools, up from 42% in 2000 but few people know what charters are. When the education journal Education Next asked Americans some basic questions this summer about charter schools, such as whether they can charge tuition or hold religious services, fewer than 1 in 5 respondents knew the correct answer (which was no in both cases). The confusion is so pervasive that more than half of the teachers surveyed couldn't answer the questions correctly either.
Quick primer: Charters are public schools that generally operate independently of traditional school districts. Since 1992, they have grown in number from one in Minnesota to about 5,000 in 40 states and the District of Columbia. (Ten states don't have laws allowing charter schools.) Collectively, they serve about 1.6 million students, and an estimated 420,000 kids are on various waiting lists to get into them. By law, when more students apply to a charter than there are seats available, the school has to hold a lottery to determine who gets in.
Scenes of these lotteries are currently being used to wrenching effect in two documentaries, Waiting for 'Superman' and The Lottery, but the process of randomly selecting which kids get a better shot at life in high-performing charters has a troubling echo in the policy world: In too many states, charter schools are treated in a similarly random way. The mantra from charter-school opponents is that charters are no better, on average, than other public schools. The implication is that consequently there is little to be learned from charters and less reason to have them.
For instance, a recent and widely cited study from Stanford University of charter schools in 15 states and Washington found that students in 17% of charters do better than surrounding schools, 37% do worse and the remainder do about the same. Interestingly and generally overlooked: Those numbers are not fixed. Students do better the longer they stay in charters, and the results varied by state.
These results surprised few who follow charter schooling closely. What was surprising was how little interest there was in figuring out what can be learned from the 17% and how to create more schools like them. Instead, critics wrote them off as flukes or cherrypickers and rushed to pronounce the entire charter experiment a failure.
But the best charter schools are not random at all; they significantly and consistently outperform the averages, and they have a lot in common with each other in their ethos and operations. In particular these schools which, in some states, have opened reverse achievement gaps with low-income minority students outpacing state averages have tight controls over who teaches in them, a relentless focus on results, and an intense use of data to inform decisions. There is also solid evidence that their successes can be reproduced and scaled up in networks such as KIPP (99 schools in 20 states), Uncommon Schools (24 schools in three states), Achievement First (17 schools in Connecticut and New York) and Aspire Public Schools (30 schools in California). Overall, the consistency of performance among the top tier of charter networks as well as many individual schools, including the Preuss School at the University of California San Diego and the MATCH Charter Public School in Boston, helps explain why the Obama Administration awarded $50 million in replication funding for high-quality charters last month.
Low-performing charters have some things in common as well. In a 2007 analysis of charter schools across 12 states and cities, my colleague Sara Mead and I found that charter quality is linked to state policy and support. Put plainly: While some failure is inevitable, low-performing charter schools are not a randomly occurring phenomenon, and there are steps policymakers can take to increase or decrease the quality of their charter sector. Those steps include strong oversight and adequate finance. Sounds obvious, but in many states charter school oversight and accountability are an afterthought. A recent analysis from Ball State University found that charter schools receive, on average, 19% less funding per student than regular public schools.
I have long been an advocate of charters as a way not only to open more great schools in communities that need them, but also to create much-needed customization in public education. I was a founding board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, have researched and written about these schools, and served on the board of directors for a charter school near where I live. For me, the biggest question today is whether policy makers will continue to make the same mistakes or get serious about leveraging the top tier of charter schools into something much larger and life-changing for more students. It's a tough question from a political standpoint, but it is most certainly not a question of chance.
Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.