Understanding the Explosive Growth of Charter Schools

More than two million students now attend charter schools, and they continue to enroll at a brisk pace. While charter schools haven't been the panacea some hoped for, they have offered many exciting and enticing changes in public education. Here are five major reasons behind their explosive growth.

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1. Focus on Quality

When charter schools first started to grow, many schools seemingly sprung up overnight. In recent years, though, states have developed regulations intended to support quality over quantity. For example, Florida gives each charter school a performance grade. Schools with higher grades can more easily expand. This pushes charter schools to focus on student performance, not just enrollment and revenue.

2. Better Funding

Public school funding has been slashed in recent years. As states struggle with unbalanced budgets, their school systems are not immune to significant cuts. These financial constraints hurt charter schools, too. Yet charter schools benefit from a few perks that their public school peers lack.

First, the federal government incentivizes charter schools with special funding, including $25 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education that were announced last fall. Second, many private foundations and businesses provide direct financial support to charter schools, thereby diversifying their revenue sources. Also, charter schools are often exempt from some of the regulations that burden school budgets; for example, they're not always bound by policies related to teachers' unions that impact staff payroll.

3. Choice in Schools

Many parents are intrigued by the choices charter schools offer. While all the traditional public schools in a town may seem frustratingly similar, charter schools are often created with unique missions or approaches to education. Even in places where the charter schools are simply newer versions of the local public schools, they still offer choices where choices may not have existed before.

In many ways, charter schools offer families the same appeal as private schools, which likewise can have themes and cultural foci. But unlike private schools, charter schools are tuition-free. Furthermore, while they may have waiting lists or lottery admissions procedures, they are open to all students; there are no interviews or admissions exams to pass.

4. Creative Education

Beyond offering choice, charter schools have the freedom to get creative with education. Charter schools may have particular themes, such as performing arts, foreign language instruction or experiential learning. Parents can choose to send their children to schools that match their interests or provide opportunities to directly prepare them for college. There are also charter schools focused on exploring new and innovative educational theories.

5. Racing to the Top

A key factor in the growth of charter schools is their role at the center of education reform in the United States. In many areas, charter schools are viewed as the best outlet for change and innovation. Therefore, much of the attention on schools goes to charters.

An example of this focus is Race to the Top, the $4.35 billion competition organized by the U.S. Department of Education. In order to earn the extra money for education, states must meet a variety of criteria, including promoting the growth and success of charter schools. This federal focus has made charter schools a priority in many states and furthered their rise.

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