Charter Schools

One of the most popular school restructuring strategies in the early 1990s was the emergence of charter schools. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation enabling the establishment of charter schools. In the ensuing decade, many states crafted charter school laws by taking advantage of unusual bipartisan support in the governor's offices and state legislatures. The schools quickly became popular and the number of charter schools grew from two schools in 1992 to more than 2300 public charter schools in thirty-four states and the District of Columbia serving over 500,000 students by the fall of 2001.

A charter school is a public school that is established by writing a charter, or contract, between a public authorizing entity and an interested party. Depending on the state charter school legislation, authorizing entities could include local education agencies, institutions of higher education, or special chartering agencies formed for the purpose of awarding charters. Charter schools receive public funding based on the number of children enrolled and operate as an independent, legal entity for a specified period. Charter operators must attain predetermined results or the charter may be revoked. In exchange for this level of accountability, charter schools request waivers from many state regulations that may inhibit the attainment of the educational goals set out in the charter.

Charter schools were founded to realize an alternative vision for schooling, to serve a special target population of students, or to gain flexibility and autonomy from local school districts. Charter developers maintained that charter schools could accomplish educational goals more effectively than conventional schools, if they were given the opportunity to operate free from restrictive regulations and had stable financing that could be tied directly to the attainment of educational goals. Waivers were requested for state and local testing mechanisms, personnel regulations, or state or local curriculum mandates; however, regulations for discrimination, health, or safety of children could not be waived.

The initial success of charter schools depended primarily on the accountability that charter authorizing entities placed upon the school. Most charter schools reported that they had measurable goals as part of the charter, and the primary means for accountability included standardized tests and attendance. Charter schools that were closed or lost their charter often did so as a result of financial mismanagement or governance issues rather than deficient academic results. Charter school operators had primary control over most areas critical to school operations, including purchasing, hiring, scheduling, and curriculum in order to achieve measurable results. Charter schools also had a positive impact on school districts where they were implemented. Many districts implemented new educational programs, and/or created new schools with programs that were similar to those in the local charter schools. They also improved public relations and customer service orientation.

The charter schools created during the 1990s tended to be smaller than conventional schools, had grade configurations that were unique, frequently serving students K–8, and generally served a similar demographic of students; however, in some states charter schools served significantly higher percentages of minority or economically disadvantaged students. Charter school developers experienced many start up problems including resource limitations for facilities and operating expenses, and negotiating the extent of legal autonomy from the chartering agency. The federal government assisted the growth of charter schools with the Public Charter Schools Program established in 1994, which provided funding to offset some of the start up limitations including planning and early implementation costs. The federal authorization for charter schools increased from the initial $6 million in 1995 to over $200 million in fiscal year 2002. With continued federal dollars alleviating start up burdens, charter school development increased as proponents replicated successful models and encouraged greater autonomy and accountability of charter schools.

See also: Education, United States; Magnet Schools; School Choice.


Hassel, Bryan C. 1999. The Charter School Challenge: Avoiding the Pitfalls, Fulfilling the Promise. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Office of Educational Research and Improvement. 2000. The Stateof Charter Schools: Fourth-year Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.