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Marking 20 Years of Charter Schools

Charter schools are so in-demand that 400,000 students are sitting on wait lists.

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On May 7, families, educators, and advocates began celebrating the 20th anniversary of charter schools during National Charter Schools Week, organized by the nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). Yesterday, NAPCS representatives from every state visited Washington, D.C., where they discussed charter school issues with their representatives on Capitol Hill.

With more than 2 million students across 41 states and Washington, D.C. attending charters schools, it may be hard to believe that charters have only been around for 20 years.

"The initial sort of 'bones' of the first charter school wall were drafted on a napkin in ... a hotel bar," says Ursula Wright, interim president and CEO of NAPCS. "It's really interesting to see how that 40,000-foot view flourished into something that's been a sizable component of education today."

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Charter schools are open-enrollment, public, tuition-free institutions. They must meet state and federal academic standards, but have more flexibility in areas such as curriculum design and language immersion programs, as long as they also meet the goals established by their original charter contracts. The idea for such schools began in 1991, Wright says.

"At the time, people wanted more experiential and class-based learning," notes Wright. "People wanted to make sure there were opportunities for those who ... for whatever reasons, weren't necessarily having the greatest success in the traditional school system."

The very first charter school, Minnesota's City Academy, began as a school for students who had dropped out or been expelled from their traditional schools. Today, there are more than 5,600 charter schools across the country, and about 400,000 students sitting on wait lists, ready to enroll.

"We have not been able to have the supply meet parent demand," Wright says. She notes that, often, "funding just is not there," because charters schools, on average, receive less government funding.

Wright also cites competitive and sometimes adversarial relationships with traditional public school administrations who veto the building of charters within a zoned area, as well as a lack of dedicated leaders to help grow charter schools.

These factors lead to many students being wait-listed, and because charter schools are open enrollment, they use a lottery system to choose applicants.

"In many instances … you see the hope on the faces of the parents and children who are there, and when they don't make it into the schools, it's truly gut-wrenching," Wright notes of the students who are unlucky in the lottery.

Choosing a charter school does not always mean students will be wait-listed, but either way, parents and students should explore prospective schools before deciding which to attend.

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"Every parent and every family should be an informed customer," Wright says, of choosing any school, be it charter or otherwise. They should visit, speak with school leaders, ask for school statistics, and then compare and contrast the schools, she suggests.

"Based on the specific needs of their child, [parents] should identify which schools would provide the environments that would allow their child to flourish."

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