Charter Schools: Passing or Failing?


Charter Schools: Passing or Failing
Patti Bonner

Strayer University, Summer 2008


This study’s objective was to Research of a “choice” school that operates under a performance contract which details specifics as the school’s mission, program, goals, demographics of the students served, methods of assessment, and ways to assess success. Such educational arrangements are known as charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that have greater accountability for academic assessment and fiscal practices, while receiving more independence and experiencing fewer regulations than traditional public schools. Research shows that there is a fair amount of success with this type of contractual education, and that a fair amount of issues accompany the success, such as fluctuating changes in student performance that are immeasurable by test scores. Another issue with the contractual educational facilities that is heating up in recent months is the conflict that arises between this type of learning environment versus the traditional public school system. This paper examines differing authorities in an attempt to determine whether charter schools are achieving their intended missions, or falling short of their goals – the verdict of this author’s research is that the structure is conducive to innovative practices, although the overall end results demonstrated by charter schools does not measure up to their tangible and intangible costs.

Charter Schools: Passing or Failing

This study into the report card of charter schools in the United States will attempt to decide whether this mode of education is more or less successful in the quest of education.  The unique research covered in this study represents the most recent journal articles that are related to these public schools that are operated independently of the local school board. Charter schools being unique in that they differ in various degrees from the curriculum and educational philosophy of other schools in the same system, they can also take the form of experimental public schools for mainly primary, but some secondary, education.

Charter schools do not charge tuition and frequently have lottery based admissions. They, therefore, provide an alternative to public schools, oftentimes offering a curriculum that specializes in a certain field– e.g. arts, mathematics, etc. Others simply seek to provide a better and more efficient general education than nearby public schools.

Public school funding in the United States is not a product of intelligent design. Funding programs have grown willy-nilly based on political entrepreneurship, interest group pressure, and intergovernmental competition. Consequently, now that Americans feel the need to educate all children to high standards, no one knows for sure how money is used or how it might be used more effectively (Hill, 2008).

These institutions are also exclusive in that some are created and organized by teachers and or parents and or community leaders, in a totally autonomous school environment, while others are state-run charters that are unaffiliated with local school districts and founded by non-profits such as universities and government entities that may appear in clusters across a geographic area.

The term “charter” possibly originated in the 1970s when Ray Budde, a New England university professor, suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or “charters” by their local school boards to discover new approaches to education. Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, then publicized the idea, suggesting that local boards could charter an entire school with union and teacher approval. One of the first charter schools was a well-known institution called the H-B Woodlawn Program, as a part of the educational movements that fueled such innovative education in the 1960s and 1970s, it was established to provide a more individualized and caring environment to students.

As they were originally envisioned, the ideal model of a charter school appeared as a legally and financially autonomous public school – void of tuition, religious affiliation, or discriminatory student admissions. Charter schools were also foreseen to operate much like a private business.  In the business sense of being free from many state laws and district regulations, the charter-school beginnings grew on the premise that they were more accountable for student outcomes rather than for processes or inputs that were believed to be enhanced through stipulations such as Carnegie Units and teacher certification requirements.

The charter school movement has roots in a number of other reform ideas, including:

  • alternative schools
  • site-based management
  • magnet schools
  • public school choice
  • privatization
  • community-parental empowerment

In the late 1980s Philadelphia started a number of schools-within-schools and called them “charters.” Some of them were schools of choice. The idea was further refined in Minnesota where charter schools were developed according to three basic values: opportunity, choice, and responsibility for results.

In 1991 Minnesota passed the first charter school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2003 that number increased to 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. From 1997 to 2006 the number of charters in the US grew from 693 to 3,977. Perhaps surprisingly, given this growth, previous work has found mixed evidence on the impacts of charter schools on student performance. However, these studies focus almost exclusively on test scores as the outcome of interest. Thus, one potential explanation for this discrepancy is that charter schools affect student performance in ways that cannot be measured by test scores.

The charter school data is gathered at least annually, collected by mostly independent groups, is largely captured by survey. The U.S. Charter Schools Organization is said to statistics that consist of information related to size, scope, demographics (Figure 1), operations, and management of public charter schools (Charter schools data, n. d.).

It is because of conflicting and diverse initial findings that this research is important to the author’s personal curiosity. On one hand, the appeal of fresh, new approaches to teaching and learning is the stimulus for continued education. On the other hand, a constant vigil over money and test scores to prove the worth of the methodology defeats the main purpose of acting as vehicle for education. The analysis of a sampling of literature is expected to illuminate the more constant and logical explanation of the evidence examined.


In this paper new, longitudinal data from an anonymous large urban school district is used to assess how charter schools affect student discipline, attendance, and retention; these are compared to test score impacts. Using individual fixed-effects analyses shows that schools which begin as charters generate improvements in student behavior and attendance but not test scores. Charters that convert from regular public schools have mixed effects on test scores. While there is evidence of selection into charter schools based on changes in outcomes, these results change little after applying intermittent panel strategies. Finally, there is little evidence that charter schools generate long-term benefits if students return to non-charter schools.

A report prepared by the Center for Education Reform in 2006 states the opportunity posed by charter schools well by saying, “when the charter school concept was born in the days prior to the advent of The No Child Left Behind Act, the bargain was freedom in exchange for accountability” (CER, 2006). As an educational watchdog for learning and teaching communities, the CER felt that charter schools were a chance to try to provide a tailored education to some students through a more micro-managed, yet opportunistic, educational environment and respond to needs expressed by parents, students, and communities (including the teaching community).

According to the National Education Association (NEA), for-profit charter schools rarely outperform traditional public schools, even when the charter receives higher funding. Although the U.S. Department of Education’s findings agree with those of the NEA, their study points out the limitations of such studies and the inability to hold constant other important factors, and notes that “study design does not allow us to determine whether or not traditional public schools are more effective than charter schools” (NEA, 1998).


Counselor interviews, professional journals, litigation, and the most recent data and statistics on the subject of charter schools is evidence that is examined at the primary and secondary levels of education. Many of the inherent organizational challenges found therein, are to be analyzed for themes that are perpendicular and those that are parallel.  Earlier reviews on the topic has used the words perverse and “spectacle of fear” to describe charter schools in their failing and miserable attempts to reform the contemporary schools under the guise of the 2002 No Child Left Behind ideal (Granger, 2008). In only a few of the sources consulted in this study has this harsh language been used to describe the effects of charter schooling.  The majority of the literary sources have been supportive of the innovation that is placed in those type of schools.

It is the latter positive contributions consulted in this paper, which convinced the writer to theorize that charter schools are one of the fastest growing innovations in education policy because they have a tendency to invoke a positive learning outcome in their students. Broad bipartisan support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education contribute to the solidarity of this concept and the general research opinion. In his 1997 State of the Union Address, former President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2002. In 2002, President Bush called for $200 million to support charter schools. His proposed budget called for another $100 million for a new Credit Enhancement for Charter Schools Facilities Program. Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Education has provided grants to support states’ charter school efforts, starting with $6 million in fiscal year 1995.

Another point of kudos for the charter school system that was evident through this research was the issue of the choice processes that charter students have at their disposal that public schools make available only on a limited and or unobservable basis. Substantiation of these alternatives and support that are more-readily made available to charter school students was noted in a report on the charter school counseling by Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch (1995) and mentioned in a professional high school journal article entitled, “College Counseling in Charter High Schools: Examining the Opportunities and Challenges”. (Farmer-Hinton & McCullough, 2008). The schools’ staff generally promotes college as a normal and viable postsecondary choice that is communicated through the charter schools counselors’ open relationship with their students.

Responsibility for Results

The mere premise of a charter school is to exhibit results in many major areas. Through the research of this paper, it is evidenced that the charter schools are displaying a great deal of positive results with respect to the subject areas listed in most of their legal charters. The original thesis was that the cost of these results versus the benefit of their results was questionable. During this research, only one professional article was readily available to discuss this particular subject, although there are many legal causes, some are mentioned in this writing, that indicate that this is a huge concern with the public, as well.

There is an important consideration when drafting or revising the legislation for a charter school, however, that addresses “whether to include an appeals process for organizers whose initial proposals are rejected” (The Charter School Roadmap, 1998). Many of these are shown in a report (Table 1) that tracks the variables of applicants within established guidelines.

Many states have seen the concept of charter schools in their state supreme courts on mostly monetary issues, but a unique case of the governing authority over a charter school application for its charter was heard in Beaufort County Board of Education v. Lighthouse Charter School Committee, et al. (1999).  This case went a long way towards resolving many of the issues surrounding charter schools in the state of South Carolina. “The Court’s decision made it clear that a local school board has the authority, under the S.C. Charter Schools Act of 1996, to require a charter school applicant to comply with the Act’s provisions before a charter is approved and, once the local board makes a decision concerning a charter school applicant, the local board’s decision must be upheld by the State Department of Education if that decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record” (Duff, White & Turner, LLC, 1999).

Presidential mandates are indicative of the popularity of charter-school types with the constituents and the general public at large. “In the end, school improvement is accomplished through the hard work of school staff, with administrative and parent support” (NEA, 1998) – stated exactly as a common knowledge and belief to the author of this research.

The results of the literature consulted and cited in this paper have been found to emphasize the original theory that the overall benefits produced by charter schools are almost equal to, if they don’t exceed, the cost that is incurred. The fact that this paradigm exists is not believed to be intentional, but rather more of an undefined direction for charter schools and an existing incompetence at truly managing a budget.

Previous research, although truly controversial, was not found to reveal a huge imbalance of the overall end results as opposed to the cost of such at present.  Charter schools were found financially unaccountable, whereby their products outweigh the sum of their tangible and intangible costs, by only one professional review. The research of this independent review was even concluded with the following, “recent three initiatives – an R&D intermediary, using charters as the point of the lance, and creation of a level playing field for competition – could set off a wave of innovation and escalating school performance. This, in turn, could tell Americans what they need to spend for effective schools” (Hill, 2008).

This lack of professional review to the contrary is not believed to be a limitation, yet an indication that the concept of the charter schools is a sound one that is being refined into a more efficient and effective educational environment. Therefore, the conclusion of this research is found to be that the charter schools are passing on their score card – marginally, at present, but they are expected to become better stewards of their funds and expenses in the future, thus increasing their passing score.


Charter School Closures: An Opportunity for Accountability. (2006, February). Center for Education Reform.

Charter schools data. (n. d.). Retrieved July 21, 2008, from

The Charter School Roadmap. (1998, September). Department of Education. Retrieved August 30, 2008, from .

Duff, White & Turner, LLC. (1999). S.C. Supreme Court Decision On Charter Schools. FindLaw. Retrieved August 29, 2008, from .

Farmer-Hinton, R., & McCullough, R. (2008, April). College Counseling in Charter High Schools: Examining the Opportunities and Challenges. High School Journal, 91(4), 77-90. Retrieved July 27, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

Granger, D. (2008, May). No Child Left Behind and the Spectacle of Failing Schools: The Mythology of Contemporary School Reform. Educational Studies, 43(3), 206-228. Retrieved July 27, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

Hill, P. (2008, April). Spending Money When It Is Not Clear What Works. PJE. Peabody Journal of Education, 83(2), 238-258. Retrieved July 27, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

Imberman, S.A. (2007).  Achievement and Behavior in Charter Schools: Drawing a More Complete Picture.

National Education Association (1998, July). “For-Profit Management of Public Schools”. CorpWatch.

Table 1

State-by-State Analysis of Charter School Laws

Appeals and Approval


# of Schools/Students


Appeals & Approval

School Limit

Student Limit

Eligible Operators




30 (limits are defined geographically)


Anyone; law does not specify

Local school board; subject to state school board approval



25 SEA per year 25 charter board per year; no limit on local board-sponsored schools


Public body, private person or private organization

Local school board, state board of education or state charter school board

May apply to other sponsor




Existing public school

State board with approval of local board

None; SEA may request hearing but cannot overturn a decision


250 charter schools for the 1998-99 school year with an additional 100 charter schools per school year thereafter


Existing public schools; new start-ups; no private or home-based schools allowed

Local school board, county board of education, state board of education

May apply to other sponsor




Anyone; no private or home schools

Local school board



24 schools (distinction between local and state and number in congressional district removed in 1997)

No state school can enroll more than 250 students or 25% of the district enrollment, whichever is less

Anyone; no private or home schools

Local or state school board



No statewide limit, but limited five schools per year for the first three years

None; must serve at least 200 students (waiver for at-risk)

Any person, university, college or nonreligious, nonhome-based, nonsectarian entity

LEA or SEA (local board only for conversions)


District of Columbia

For FY97, 10 schools per board, for total of 20 schools per year


Anyone; no home schools

D.C Board or Education; Public Charter School Board



Limits defined according to district student enrollment; district may request cap waiver from State Board of Education


Anyone; no private or home schools; private schools may disband and reincorporate as charter school

LEA, state universities developmental research schools in consultation with local board

Appeal to SEA; District makes final decision




Local school, private organization, or state or local public entity. No private or home schools.

SEA with LEA approval.

The state board may still grant a charter if the local school board does not approve of the application.




Existing public school




Not more that 60 schools in the first five years; not more that 12 schools per year; not more than 2 schools within an educational classification region; not more that 1 school per district in a year. If fewer than 12 applications, the unused allotments shall be assigned to a statewide pool for other requesting districts with distribution to be determined by random drawing.


Any person. No private or home school; for profits cannot operate charter schools.

Local School Board

Appeal to a hearing officer selected by the start superintendent of public instruction. if the decision is not reversed, an appeal to the state board of education with sponsorship of the school under the state board of education.


45 with distribution based on population


Teachers, administrators, local school councils, colleges or universities, public community colleges, corporations or other entities; no private or home schools

LEA with SEA review for compliance with law

Appeal to state board; recommendation is nonbinding




Anyone; no private or home schools

LEA with SEA review for adherence to state laws, rules and regulations



42 (no more than 20 prior to February 1, 1998)


Three or more certified teachers alone or partnership with 10 or more citizens, public service organization, business or corporation, college or university, or faculty and staff of any city or parish or any LEA; no private of home schools

LEA or SEA depending on type of charter



50 (13 of which must be Horace Mann conversion schools)

No more that 25% of the total number of students attending public schools in the state

A business, two or more teachers, 10 or more parents or others; no private or home schools

State secretary of education (Horace Mann schools also must be approved by local district and local collective bargaining agent)



None; state university can sponsor 150 through 1999


Any person or entity

Local school board, intermediate school board, community college or state public university





One or more licensed teachers; no home schools

LEA, community colleges, state university, technical and private colleges; SEA must approve all schools

If local board denies application, and at least two members vote to sponsor, state may choose to sponsor


Six (one in each congressional district)


Existing public schools

SEA with approval by LEA in district where the charter is located



21 (allocated based on county population); unlimited number serving at-risk students


At least three licensed teachers alone or in partnership with: 10 or more members of general public, organization devoted to serving the general public, private business or college or university; no private or home schools

LEA after receiving permission from SEA to solicit applications; charter also must be approved by SEA


New Hampshire

Five prior to 1/1/97; 10 per year through 1999; law defines geographical limitations

School districts may impose limits

Nonprofit organizations, two or more certified teachers, 10 or more parents; no nonpublic or home schools

LEA with state then granting or denying proposed contract

SEA which may then approve and grant charter

New Jersey

135 (12.95-12/97) Minimum of three schools allocated to each county

No more than 500 students or 25% of student body of school district, whichever is less

Teachers and/or parents of public school children; higher education institutions and/or private entities may join teachers and parents; no private or home schools

Commissioner and local board or state superintendent in state-operated school district; commissioner has final authority

SEA within 30 days or

New Mexico



Existing public schools



North Carolina

100 (five per district per year)

Charter must enroll 65 students and have at least three teachers (can request waiver in application with compelling reason)

Anyone; no home schools

SEA, LEA or state university; final approval by SEA

SEA which may approve charter


20 start-ups in Lucas County; unlimited conversions in all school districts statewide; unlimited in “Big Eight” school districts

Schools must have minimum of 25 students

Anyone; no home schools

City, local, exempted village or joint vocational board of education; statewide SEA for Big Eight districts only; Lucas County Education Service Center and the University of Toledo in Lucas County only





Individual; one or more teachers who will teach at proposed school; parents or guardians of students who will attend school; any nonsectarian university or museum; any nonprofit, corporation, association, partnership or combination thereof; no private or home schools

LEA, two or more local boards may grant regional charter beginning in 1999-2000 school year

State Charter School Appeal Board (with 2% or 1,000 district resident signatures whichever is less after 7/1/99)

Rhode Island

20 (no more than 2 per district or four in districts with over 20,000 students)

No more than 6% of state’s school-age population

Existing public schools, groups of public school personnel or public school districts; no private or home schools

State board of regents with approval from commissioner of elementary and secondary education or LEA


South Carolina



Anyone; no home schools




120 SEA approved; unlimited local sponsored and at-risk


Public or private higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, government entities, groups of parents or teachers; no home schools

LEA; SEA for open-enrollment charters



8 for a three year pilot program


An individual or group of individuals, including teachers and parents or guardians of students who will attend the school, or a not-for-profit legal entity organized under the laws of the state. No private or home schools.

State board of education. The local board will review the application and may offer suggestions or recommendations to which the state board shall give due consideration. 

None (final action subject to judicial review).


The total number of schools shall not exceed ten percent of the school division’s total number of school, or two charter schools, whichever is greater.  Local school boards are authorized to limit the number of charter schools.


Any person, group or organization. No private or home schools.

Local school district.



20 (10 districts may sponsor up to two schools each)


Anyone, but petition must be signed by 10% of teachers employed by district or 50% of teachers employed at one school; no private or home schools.

LEA applies to state superintendent for approval to sponsor; schools apply to local board; mayor can sponsor in Milwaukee

None (except in Milwaukee)




Anyone, but petition must be signed by 10% of the district’s teachers or 50% of the teachers in a school, and by 10% of parents of pupils in districts or 50% of parents of students in school; no private or home schools.



Appendix Table C. The Charter School Roadmap, September 1998.

Figure Captions

Figure 1.  Figure 1. Demographics of Profiled Charter Schools.  Data from Charter schools data, (n. d.).

Figure 1. Demographics of Profiled Charter Schools

School and Location

Year First Chartered and Authorizer



Student Ethnicity

English Learners

Subsidized Meals

Special Needs

Per Pupil Spending

Distinctive Programs and Features

The Arts and Technology
Academy Public Charter School
Washington, D.C.

1998 Special charter school board



98% Afr. Am.
2% Other





  • Basic skills plus arts
  • Extended day/year
  • Mosaica national management affiliation

BASIS School, Inc. Tucson, Ariz.

1998 State



74% White 12% Hispanic
4% Afr. Am.
10% Asian Am.


Not applicable



  • European academic tradition
  • 12 of 30 courses qualify as Advanced Placement
  • Only Arizona school to have scores above the 90th percentile on math SAT 9 in all grades

Community of Peace Academy St. Paul, Minn.

1995 Local district



70% Hmong
20% Afr. Am.
10% Hispanic, Eritrian, White, Vietnamese, & Am. Indian





  • Non-violent community focus and award-winning character education program
  • High levels of support for English language learners
  • Looping to build relationships and support

KIPP Academy Houston Houston, Texas

1994 State



77% Hispanic
21% Afr. Am.
2% Asian Am. & White





  • KIPP, Inc. national college prep program
  • Extended day/year
  • 85% of students enter college; 94% are first-generation college students

Oglethorpe Charter School Savannah, Ga.

1998 Local district



51% White
38% Afr. Am.
4% Asian Am.
3% Hispanic
4% Other





  • Parent contract to donate 20 hours a year
  • Core Knowledge curriculum
  • Character education focus

Ralph A. Gates Elementary School
Lake Forest, Calif. (Los Angeles Basin)

1999 Local district



72% Hispanic
22% White
2% Asian Am.
2% Filipino
1% Afr. Am.
1% Multi-racial





  • School facility houses two-way Spanish-English immersion charter program for 43% of students
  • Multiple language programs during and after school for students and parents
  • Regrouping across classes and grades for reading and math

Roxbury Preparatory Charter School Boston, Mass.

1999 State



80% Afr. Am.
20% Hispanic





  • 66% of students enter below grade level; 100% continue in college prep high schools
  • Mandated homework support, Saturday school, summer school for poor grades
  • Curriculum developed by staff based on student performance on school comprehensive exams

The School of Arts and Sciences Tallahassee, Fla.

1999 Local district



62% White
22% Afr. Am.
6% Hispanic
3% Asian Am.
7% Multi-racial





  • Multi-age classrooms, looping
  • Developmental, project-based approach
  • No grades; student portfolios