Charting a Course

Are charter schools reshaping the education landscape, providing public schools with much-needed competition that will force innovative change? Or are charters a costly experiment that is siphoning a shrinking supply of available dollars from traditional public schools?

Depending on whom you ask, the answer to either question may be “yes.”

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent schools, have proven to be one of the more popular school reform and improvement efforts over the past decade. This is evident in how quickly the number of charter schools has grown — increasing 14 percent from last year to 2,700.

While the number of charter schools is growing, they still represent only a very small portion (3 percent) of the more than 92,000 total public schools in existence. But the relatively small number does not seem to be detracting from the potential impact charters can have on public school operations.

One of the biggest challenges for charter schools, however, is finding adequate facilities to house students. A 2001 survey found that charters spend an average of 12 percent of their budget on loan payments or rent for school space. In addition, charters typically get a smaller percentage of operating funds than traditional public schools, and most do not receive any money for capital projects.

But that is changing. “No Child Left Behind” makes available grants to charter schools to help defray the cost of acquiring, constructing and renovating facilities. Several states also are addressing the facilities dilemma. For example, in last month's elections, California's massive $13 billion bond issue included $100 million for charter-school facilities.

The trend toward charters most likely will continue, and their impact is being documented — prompting many traditional public schools to improve educational programs and services, be more responsive and improve communication with parents.

In light of this, it seems logical to embrace charters as part of the regular school system instead of an experimental program outside the normal district. Only then can we truly reap the potential benefits — and learn from the challenges — of education reform.



Number of charter schools operating in the United States in the 2002-03 school year.
Source: Center for Education Reform


Number of students attending the nation's 2,700 charter schools.
Source: Center for Education Reform


Number of new charter schools that opened this fall.
Source: Center for Education Reform


Number of states, including the District of Columbia, where charter schools are operating.
Source: Center for Education Reform


Percent of total budget the average charter school spends on loan payments or rent for school space.
Source: Charter School Friends Network

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