The link between philanthropy and charter schools extends back to the advent of the latter, in 1991. During the last 25 years, the charter school system has grown from its roots in Minnesota to include the District of Columbia and 43 states. Largely supported by foundations and other philanthropic sources, charters outpace all other educational options in terms of growth.
Recent statistics show that the number of charter schools in the United States is fast-approaching 7,000, with almost 3 million students enrolled. Whether or not these children are benefiting optimally from their classroom experience is a matter of debate, and one closely observed by researchers.
Below are seven ways in which the charter school system, backed by the philanthropic community, has advanced, followed by a few observations for even more improvement.
Supporting children in need
One of the driving forces for establishing charter schools in the first place was to create educational opportunities for at-risk children. Legislation in many states specifies this purpose, and in some places charters are actually limited to in-need urban areas.
Data shows that the focus on certain demographics has benefited students in their academic performance. Moving forward, charter groups, as well as traditional schooling systems, will need to figure out how to better integrate their student bodies.
Gauging public preference
The appeal for charter schools is growing quickly, which says something about public preferences for education, particularly what parents want for their children. For many years waiting lists have been consistently long, especially in major cities. For example, in New York City, one charter group reported nearly 7,000 applicants vying for each available seat for the 2016-17 school year, altogether leaving 17,000 on the backlog. Families nationwide appear to be jumping at the chance to enroll their kids in charter schools.
Leading progression and innovation
Charter schools in and of themselves are an innovation, and a fair share of them have continued to revolutionize education. Additionally, they have fostered the refinement of ideas, from harnessing technology in the classroom to implementing a focus on character and empowerment in the curriculum. Many schools have contributed to such advances, but there are still charters that must improve before they can be able to present an alternative schooling option.
Encouraging students to achieve their potential
Part of what leads charters to innovate is the freedom to focus the mission and vision of the school. Some schools will build around religious values or an emphasis on STEM education. Parents then choose schools according to the particular philosophies they embrace.
Within these environments, several charters now uphold a no-excuses standard and put in place provisions to help every student reach his or her potential. Such systems are not as easily feasible to enforce in traditional public schools.
Generating competition in the nonprofit sector
The no-excuse model, and the charter model in general, have attracted an increasing number of investments from philanthropists and nonprofit organizations. One study showed that from 2000 to 2010, the top 15 education philanthropies in the country increased their spending from 3 percent to 16 percent—and that number has since grown.
Although the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has held its position at the top of the list for K-12 donors, several foundations have formed and taken the place of previously prominent groups. These new foundations include the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Fisher Fund, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
Strengthening educators and administrators
For education professionals, charter schools often provide them the freedom to train and practice their craft, and to try new approaches and test their own ideas. Charter chains give administrators the opportunity to establish new organizational structures, from determining best staff development practices to managing customized facilities.
Introducing new management and oversight models
In the United States, many charter schools operate individually, but a growing amount are linked together in networks run by management organizations. This strategy is enabling charter schools to expand their reach into new regions while maintaining high standards at each campus. Thus, the charter movement presents not only an alternative schooling option, but also a new way of thinking about managing K-12 education across the country.
The future of education and philanthropy
As the charter school movement continues to expand, the developing academic field surrounding K-12 philanthropy will need to follow suit. Researchers and scholars face the task of more accurately tracing the relationship between education and philanthropy and the ways in which both fields have evolved. From that focus, a corollary question is whether one places any limits on the other and how those tensions might be resolved.