On June 4, 1991, Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson signed into law a bill that set in motion one of the most significant–and controversial–education reform movements in modern history. Minnesota’s charter school law allowed educators and other concerned individuals to apply to the state for permission to operate a government-funded school outside of the public education system. In order to obtain and keep their licenses, these new schools needed to show they were serving their students effectively, based on goals laid out in the school’s “charter.” City Academy, America’s first charter school, opened in St. Paul the following year. Its mission was to get high-school dropouts on track to vocational careers, and it is still operating today. One early enrollee, Demetrice Norris, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1992 that he had spent years, “being lazy – not doing nothing” before he “got a life back here in school” and “got a chance to be something.”
Whether charter schools have actually lived up to their initial promise is a hotly contestedtopic in the education reform debate. An entire field of education research aims to assess whether students are better off at charter schools than in the public system. The latest findings, based on six well-regarded charter schools in Boston, released Wednesday by theBoston Foundation and MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative, adds to the accumulating evidence that at least a subset of high-performing charters are measuring up to the movement’s early aspirations of giving disadvantaged kids a shot at a better life. The study shows that the Boston schools’ students did better on SAT and Advanced Placement tests and are vastly more likely to enroll at four year colleges–and to do so on scholarship–than otherwise identical students in the Boston public school system.
What makes a charter school different from other public schools? While they’re funded with public money, they generally operate outside of collective bargaining agreements (only about one-tenth of charter schools are unionized) and other constraints that often prevent principals in public schools from innovating for the good of their students (so the argument goes). In exchange for this freedom, they generally get less funding than public schools (though they’re free to look for private donations, and many do) and have to prove that they are making good on the promises set out in their charters, which often means showing that they improve their students’ performance on statewide standardized tests.