Rural Schools

Charter School Enrollment Surges Past 3 Million, But It’s Still Not Enough to Meet Parent Demand

“To people who believe that education can transform lives, charters are schools that families choose to help their child reach their unique potential.” I’ve recently found myself repeating this description of charter schools a lot—often in conversations with friends and acquaintances who are hearing about these unique public schools for the first time. As of late, charter schools have been making frequent appearances in the news, leading many Americans to turn to Google to figure out exactly what these schools are and what they represent. And this, in turn, has led to a lot of misinformation entering the national dialogue about charter schools and public school choice more generally.

Here's The Truth

As a charter school researcher, facts and figures are my touchstone in a constantly evolving education landscape. There’s a lot of speculation about what the next few years will bring for charter schools. No one knows exactly what the future will hold, but I want to offer some facts about charter schools and public school choice. Fact 1: Charter schools get results. A recent national study showed that students in urban charter schools gained, on average, 40 additional days of reading and 28 additional days of math when compared to their district public school peers. Fact 2: Charter school enrollment is up. This year, for the first time, the number of students who attend charter schools is estimated to have surpassed 3 million. In fact, according to a just-released report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, it’s closer to 3.1 million. This means that over 200,000 more children are attending charter schools this school year than last year. Fact 3: The vast majority of parents support public school choice. A recently commissioned survey asked more than 1,000 parents from across the country if they favored or opposed the ability of parents and students to choose which public school they attend—regardless of where they live. The results of the survey indicate that nearly 80 percent of parents support public school choice. In addition, more than 70 percent of parents favor having a charter school open in their neighborhood. Charter schools have been dragged into the political muck over the past few months, but the truth is they aren’t particularly controversial among the people who should matter most—students and families. A full 81 percent of Democratic parents, 77 percent of Republican parents and 76 percent of Independent parents support public school choice. It’s not a rural vs. urban divide, either. Eighty-four percent of urban parents, 77 percent of suburban parents and 74 percent of rural parents support public school choice.

Here's What These Facts Mean

What these facts tell me is that charter schools are growing because they’re working—but they’re still not even close to meeting the current level of demand. For parents in neighborhoods with failing district public schools, the concept of school choice is nothing less than a life-changing opportunity for their children to receive a high-quality public education, prepare themselves for the demands of a rapidly changing economy and pursue their dreams. For parents in neighborhoods with high-quality district public schools, school choice is an acknowledgement that district public schools (despite all of their tremendous benefits) do not work for every student. It is an acknowledgement that students are different, that they learn differently and are motivated by different things—and that district public schools are not able to meet the needs and passions of every student. I’m personally thrilled that so many people are tuning into the education debate. Even if not everyone sees eye-to-eye, it’s important that we’re all engaged. But it’s equally important that we’re all working from the same set of facts and figures, so that the choices our country makes about the future of education are grounded in reality. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of parents support public school choice because public school choice provides benefits to all students. And all children should be given the opportunity to attend a high-quality public school that meets their needs and inspires them to dream big.
Kevin Hesla is the director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He joins us from the Colorado League of Charter Schools, where he was director of research and strategy. Kevin has a background in finance, economics, and data analysis, and previously worked at an economic consulting firm and completed the Education Pioneers Analyst Fellowship. He is a ...

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