ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Chartered for Success

August 5, 2019 by Daniel Siegel

The quality of education that students receive is a key factor in their long-term success, socioeconomically and personally. There are three broad divisions of American schools: public, private, and charter. Private education dates back to early history, but public education spread rapidly throughout the United States in the 19th century. It was not until the early 1990s that charter schools—publicly-funded independent schools under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority—were officially established in the United States. Since their inception, charter schools have been, and continue to be, a robust alternative when public schools fail to provide a rigorous education for their students.

Charter schools provide a great degree of freedom that is desperately needed in public education today. Charter schools give students and families the ability to select which school they want to attend. Many students have to attend an underachieving school because they live within its geographical boundaries. Their families cannot afford to opt out of the local public school and send their children to an expensive private school to receive a better education. Charter schools offer an alternative to this dilemma. If the local public school is not sufficient, charter schools provide an affordable option for families that want their children to succeed academically. Many charter schools also specialize in subjects or have a specific mission, such as STEM-based charter schools or liberal arts-based schools, providing a more structured curriculum than many public schools.   

"Charter schools continue to be a robust alternative when public schools fail to provide a rigorous education."

As charter schools continue to expand, encouraging data on their performance is coming in. Since the late 1990s, New York City has become a hub for charter schools, with more than 10% of public school students attending charter schools. And these students are gaining an academic edge over their public school peers. In a brief released in February 2019, the Manhattan Institute reported that “on the 2018 exams, the percentage of New York City charter students who scored proficient or better exceeded the average for all other public schools in the state by 12.8 percentage points in [English language arts] and by 15.8 percentage points in math.” The brief also highlighted the academic success achieved by minority students in New York City charter schools. Notably, in mathematics, “the proficiency rate for black students in New York City charters is 34.1 percentage points higher than that of black students in all other public schools in the state; in [English language arts], the former enjoy a 26.4-percentage-point advantage.” For minority students who living in impoverished areas with poorer public schools, charter schools are critical in fostering academic success.

The highest-achieving tier of students tips strongly in the charter schools’ favor. New York City rates “extremely proficient” as the highest level of understanding in its state exams. The Manhattan Institute study notes that “more than 40% of all black students deemed to be extremely proficient in the state attended a New York City charter school in 2018.” The New York City case study shows that charter schools can offer an academically-rigorous option for students served by lower-performing public schools.

Whereas public schools are often the sole public option, receiving public funds, and do not need to compete for academic results, charter schools must compete with surrounding institutions in order to stay in business. This competition keeps them accountable for their academic performance and fuels an emphasis on achievement. If a charter school does not meet agreed upon standards, families will not want to enroll their students. Without sufficient enrollment, the school’s charter will eventually be removed. The charter recipient is therefore motivated to ensure academic success in order to best the competition.

"Freedom of school choice is essential to improving America’s K-12 education system." 

Freedom of school choice is essential to improving America’s K-12 education system. Providing a large selection of academic options, alongside public schools, can help to serve the different needs of American families. Collaboration between a diverse group of schools, all working to advance academic achievement in different ways, will help to improve schools as a whole and make them more responsive to student needs. The increase of the amount, access to, and support for charter schools enables a higher degree of freedom in educational decisions, cultivating a wider pool of knowledge, teaching methods, and experimental ideas to draw from as we work to improve underperforming institutions and keep schools accountable for the academic achievement of their students.

Daniel Siegel is a database management intern at ACTA and a rising junior at Emory University. 

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