Over the past 15 years, cities across the country have experienced rapid growth in the number of public charter schools serving their students. Charter schools are public schools operated by independent organizations, usually nonprofits. They are freed from many of the rules that constrain district-operated schools. In exchange for increased autonomy, they are normally held accountable for their performance by their authorizers, who close or replace them if they fail to educate children. Most are schools of choice, and unlike magnet schools in traditional districts, they are not allowed to select their students. If too many students apply, they hold lotteries to see who gets in.
The charter formula – autonomy, accountability, diversity of learning models, choice and operation by nonprofits – is transforming urban education. In states with strong charter laws and equally strong authorizers, charter schools have produced impressive students gains, especially in schools with high-minority, high-poverty populations.
Recently, districts from Boston to Los Angeles have tried to increase student achievement by replicating parts of this formula, in particular giving their school leaders more autonomy.