Students using tablets
Susan Pendergrass

It’s hard to believe that after nearly 30 years charter schools are still a mystery in some parts of the United States. But I still get the question: What is a charter school?

Charter schools are public schools, but instead of being governed by a local school board, they are governed by a document—their charter—that lays out how the school will operate and the metrics by which its performance will be judged. The charter is granted to the group of individuals who seek to open and run the school, and it has an expiration date of three to five years, at which point it needs to be renewed or the school is closed. The charter is awarded by an authorizer, or sponsor, who is responsible for making sure that the school stays on track, both academically and financially, and who makes the renewal or closure recommendation.

A little history might be helpful in understanding how the charter school movement began. It started in the late 1980s as an idea to let teachers, parents, or community leaders open and run a public school outside of district oversight. Credit for the idea usually goes to Al Shanker—head of one of the two major teacher’s unions in the United States. In 1988, Shanker offered an idea for reinvigorating public education that was inspired by a visit to a school in Cologne, Germany the prior year. He argued that we should allow teachers to create innovative, autonomous public schools, and that these chartered schools would serve as laboratories from which effective ideas could be replicated.

Around the same time, political economists John Chubb and Terry Moe argued that the institutional structure of public education wasn’t working. they found that autonomy was the one indispensable requirement for an effective school. And, they concluded, the existing structure of public education limits and undermines school autonomy. In their book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, Chubb and Moe proposed building an entirely new structure for public education that would withdraw authority from existing institutions and place it directly in the hands of schools, parents, and students. School districts could continue to operate their existing schools, but they would have no authority over the “chartered” public schools.

In 1991, bipartisan support for Al Shanker’s idea led to the passage of the first charter school law in Minnesota. The law was groundbreaking, and in 1992 eight chartered public schools opened in Minnesota that were autonomous, student-centered, results-oriented, and designed and run by teachers. The following year California followed suit. At the start of the 2017–18 school year, there were over 7,000 charter schools in 42 states plus the District of Columbia, serving nearly 3.2 million students. Charter schools now represent seven percent of all public schools and enroll six percent of public school students. Today, one in five public school students attends school in a district with at least 10 percent of its students in charter schools.

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.