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Charter Schools

3 Things You May Not Know About Charter Schools

Recently, when I announced the release of my newest book on charter schools, a woman I know from the gym wrote me:

"So sorry, Sarah—but as a PUBLIC SCHOOL advocate—I do not support charter schools—as I feel that they take precious money away from public schools. I am happy for YOUR success, however."

Now, I like this woman, and based on conversations we’ve had, I’d say we agree about 90% on political matters. But in this case, there were three things I wanted her to know.

The Charter School Movement Seeks to Improve Public Education for All Children

People continue to jump into the charter school movement because they want to improve public education for all children. Here in New Jersey, more than 81% of children in charter schools live in the inner cities, where no suburban parents would ever send their children to the district schools. Because low-income families cannot afford to move or pay for private schools, they are trapped in a system that has not served anyone well for decades. Nationally, only 11% of low-income students graduate from college within six years; this is a direct result of the inadequate K-12 education they’ve received.

To every critic who argues we should keep money in a district’s schools, I want to respond, “Sure, as long as you send your children and grandchildren to that failing district..” If they won’t send their own children to these failing schools, then why should other people’s children be forced to attend these schools?

Charters Have a Track Record of Success

Over the last 25 years, charter schools have improved public education, both by creating 7,000-plus new school options and by building hundreds of “proof points,” charters are closing and even reversing the achievement gaps for low-income, urban students.

We’ve seen failing and under-populated district schools replaced by charters in various cities—for example, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Newark, where the percentage of students attending charters increased from year to year and by 2016-17 was at 10%, 46% and 31%, respectively.

But it’s not just that they are new options—they’re better options. Look at the CREDO studies. Look at the winners of the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, charter management organizations (CMOs) that have modeled what is possible and continue to grow and inspire new generations of charter school founders.

After the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, charter school leaders transformed the educational system in New Orleans. The positive results have been dramatic. According to the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans, rates of high school graduation, college attendance and college persistence have increased by a range of 10 to 67%.

In New Jersey, CMOs have also been involved in turning around district schools in Newark and Camden. Newark’s charter schools outperform state averages on standardized tests and are one of the most successful urban charter sectors in the United States. And CMOs are not the only ones doing well; nationally, many individual schools are thriving, too.

Parents who previously felt helpless now have higher expectations for the kind of schooling their children deserve, and they’ve become increasingly vocal. In New York City, for example, after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would reverse Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to provide three Success Academy schools with free space in the city’s public schools, an army of 11,000 parents, children and educators—hundreds of busloads from all over the state—went to Albany to chant, “Save our schools!  Save our schools!” Governor Cuomo heard them, and he helped solve the problem.

Charter Leaders are Tackling Problems All Public Schools Face

While creating these “proof points,” charter educators have made headway on problems all public schools face.  

In the decades since the first charter law passed in 1991, the general public has increasingly come to expect that all schools, not just charter schools, should be held accountable for results. In their willingness to trade greater autonomy for stricter accountability, charter school educators have led the charge to find answers to questions like: How can we tell if a school is succeeding or failing? How can we best measure student performance? How can we use student performance data to improve instruction?

Charter school educators have also begun to tackle two of the thorniest problems in the field: how to effectively prepare and strengthen the capacity of teachers and school leaders, and how to provide rigorous curriculum and instruction. Leaders of several high-performing charter networks have launched new organizations, including Relay and Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education to address talent and training challenges.  

Dynamic charter educators continue to produce ideas and tools that help us all improve how we work with students every day. They’ve written best-selling books and created an array of online resources to support effective instruction. Several high-performing networks have openly shared their curricula: Achievement First, Match Fishtank and Success Academy. Teachers everywhere can use these tools for free.

I could go on, but here’s the bottom line: Charter school educators are sharing what they’ve learned because they want to improve public education overall.  Like my friend at the gym, they too are public school advocates.


Sarah Tantillo founded and led both the NJ Charter School Resource Center and NJ Charter Schools Association. Currently she is Managing Director of Humanities at the Great Oaks Legacy Charter Schools network in Newark, NJ. She has written three ...

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