Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best

Public debate continues to rage about the role of public charter schools in education reform. Policymakers and philanthropists across the political spectrum – some with qualifications, others with none at all – have flocked to support charters as an alternative to district schools with stagnant learning outcomes. In response, critics of charters such as Diane Ravitch have decried “the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes,” citing evidence that “there are twice as many failing charter schools as there are successful ones.”

Yet few debate one fact about the charter sector: the existence of a subset of schools that induce extremely high academic progress and achievement by children who enter years behind, many of whom are poor and a disproportionate number of whom are racial minorities. These include both stand-alone schools and networks, typically operating under charter management organizations (“CMOs”). KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools are three examples of CMOs that blossomed from single schools into high-performing networks serving primarily disadvantaged children. They teach children the habits of high ambition, hard work, and allowing oneself no excuses – and in most cases they achieve far better results than other schools. Regardless of the overall success rate of charter schools, high-performing charter schools in high-poverty communities have shown us that it is possible for disadvantaged children to achieve at high levels.

While every child counts, the number of children served by the best charter schools is far too low. Millions of parents and children keenly feel the gap between the number of children these schools serve and the far greater number who need their services. Children’s educations are won and lost in the game of wooing top CMOs to cities and towns and again during admission lotteries.

How big is the gap between the need and supply? The charter sector as a whole served about 1.6 million children in the 2009-2010 school year. According to one study, about 17 percent of charter schools measurably outperform comparable district schools for similar children, disproportionately so for disadvantaged children. The top 17 percent of charter schools reached approximately 272,000 children in the 2009-10 school year.

This supply of top charter slots is woefully inadequate relative to the need:

• Nearly 50 million children are enrolled in K-12 education in the U.S., and almost 20 percent – nearly 10 million children – live in poverty.
• In communities with high rates of poverty, nearly half of high school students drop out.
• NAEP economic achievement gaps are large: In 2009, 16 percent of economically disadvantaged children were proficient in eighth grade reading on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), compared to 41 percent of their advantaged peers, with an even larger gap in math.
• Many low-income children who are performing at grade level are unquestionably capable of advanced work unavailable to them at their current schools but which is offered at the best charter schools.

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