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The Rise of Charter Schools

Jordan Catapano


In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans has had its fair share of work to rebuild itself. Not only has it been challenged to reconstruct the buildings themselves that were damaged, but it is also doing something new: Rebuilding the education system itself. New Orleans isn’t merely trying to just put up schools that were knocked down – it is reimagining what an urban area’s school system can look like.

Their strategy: close all public schools and replace them with charter schools.

Charter schools are governed under a group or organization under a legislative contract. Often these schools are publically funded, but they do not need to submit to the same legislative stipulations that public schools do. Charter schools have charters – or contracts – that state what its objectives are, and they are granted the freedom and flexibility to meet those objectives in manners that may deviate from public educational norms. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were more than 5,700 charter schools in 42 states across the nation as of 2012.

Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

In a public school system, teachers are accountable to administrators, who are accountable to school boards, who are accountable to voters. In a charter school, however, there is no publically elected school board the institution is accountable to. This increases the freedom with which the administrator may operate under the charter, although it does subtract the impact a community can have on its educational desires. Charter schools are still ultimately accountable to the government body that granted the charter, though it may be years between reviews of charter objectives and possible revocations.

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Charter schools, like public schools, are often free to attend. This is a perk for parents who may have been considering the price of private education. However, admittance into a specific charter is not guaranteed. In many cases there is an application process in which a student may be turned down; in other cases – like New Orleans – admission is determined by a lottery system. Charter schools may also be owned by for-profit companies.

Charter schools have steadily become a more and more appealing alternative to public education. Public schools are mired in rigorous legislation, are forced to take whichever students live within district boundaries, and are subject to the scrutiny of a demanding public. There is a certain prestige that accompanies charters when they have limited admission and a flexibility that grants a welcome relief from dilemmas of public school.

The Reasoning and Critiques of New Orleans’ Decision

In May of this year, New Orleans decided to take a radical new approach to education: it dismantled the public school bureaucracy and created a schooling system based entirely on public charter schools. This has a host of implications for how education will operate within the city.

First, instead of a centralized decision-making body, authority is now held within each individual school: School operators will be fully responsible for staffing decisions, transportation, special education, curriculum and facility maintenance.

Second, students will have a lottery that will assign them to a specific charter school. After that, they have the opportunity to apply for a seat at one of the city’s other fifty-eight charter schools. Instead of being assigned to a specific school, students have a perceived choice in where they attend. However, charter schools are not obligated to admit any student, nor do they have to accept a student population beyond their desired maximum. Advocates for this system claim that this empowers parents by offering their children educational opportunities that were previously closed; detractors state the opposite, claiming that these schools are accountable to no one and may in fact inhibit choices of families.

In addition to choice of schools, the system may offer families better flexibility in where students attend. In public schools, parents enforce their will by voting – but this only occurs every few years and is a slow process to change a school board. In a charter school system, theoretically, a student can leave one school and attend a new one within a short span of time. The dismissing of public schools additionally means that poor performing schools are completely gone – no longer will underprivileged students languish in these institutions.

However, many individuals – including John White, the Lousiana state superintendent of education – agree that admission into charter schools is not equal. In fact, they might increase segregation, as white, wealthy students tend to get admitted to the best charter schools. While there is an enrollment lottery in place in New Orleans, not all charter schools participate in it.

For better or worse, New Orleans is committed to this model of public education. Time will tell if it is able to improve the educational outcomes of thousands of children, or if it will present familiar problems in new forms.

What the Future May Hold

As enrollment in charter schools has increased across the country, it is clear that for the time being the nation is infatuated with the experimentation and flexibility charter schools offer that deviates from public schools. Advocates of charter schools see them as a welcome, refreshing alternative to worn out, corrupt, bureaucratic public school systems that fail to meet the needs of the rising generation. Individuals involved with New Orleans’s innovation – like Neerav Kingsland – are leaving The Big Easy to introduce their model in other national cities.

Charter schools, some claim, were meant to be temporary seclusions of experimentation that were embraced and governed by teachers themselves, and not meant to compete with public schools. However, the near future seems to indicate that charter schools will remain an attractive alternative to public or private schools. One thing is true, however: Charter schools take funds away from public schools, and as charters continue to gain momentum so too will the debates we have about the role they should play in educating our nation’s youth.

Do you work at or have children who attend a charter school? What do you think about charters, and where do you think we are headed with them?

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website