Coronavirus Gives Us Another Reason to Celebrate Charter Schools

Congress established National Charter Schools Week almost exactly two decades ago, when a bipartisan resolution was passed recognizing it, and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Throughout the duration of the Clinton administration, from the early 90s to the end of the millennium, state after state passed legislation allowing charter schools – public schools exempt from many of the operational rules and red tape that plague the traditional school system – to open up and serve students and families. Most importantly, charters are schools of choice: families choose to enroll their students and sign on to a school’s mission.

Because they’re alternatives to traditional public schools, charters often open in neighborhoods where the local school is not providing students with the pathways to success that they deserve. Charters serve disproportionally minority and disadvantaged student populations. Despite welcoming students with additional challenges, overall charter schools have succeeded in producing academic gains across the country. For example, in Washington D.C., which has a large charter sector, charters graduate their students at a rate 24 percent higher than comparable public schools. And they’ve done so while consistently being denied the equal funding they’re guaranteed by law (overall, charters receive just 72 cents on the dollar sent to traditional public schools).

The innovation charter schools provide and encourage is especially important now. During the pandemic we’re all living through today, charters have stepped up to the plate, some sharing innovative virtual and hybrid models with any willing districts, and expanding in states that have allowed them to do so in order to flexibly serve families during this time.

For example, Florida Virtual School has enrolled new students, not just in its native Florida, but in Alaska, where special legislation has allowed families to join a school that is used to meeting the challenges and seizing the opportunities of virtual learning. Another charter school network in New York is operating mobile busses with Wi-Fi to deliver lessons to underserved communities with little internet access.

There is no one way for learning to succeed during this difficult time. But charter schools provide key flexibilities that district schools often fail to or cannot. Unfortunately, barriers to charter expansion and success still exist in many states, leaving more than one million students on waitlists around the country. And during a time when all education sectors should be working together to make things easier for teachers, families, and students, additional roadblocks have been thrown up to prevent charter schools, particularly virtual charters, from rising to meet the need.

Political turf wars between education services are unproductive at the best of times. In this moment, they’re throwing up additional challenges during an already-difficult time for millions.

Charter schools have come a long way since President Clinton signed the National Charter Schools Week resolution into law. From the hard-fought battles to open the first few schools, to the more than 7,000 that operate in 44 states and D.C. serving three million students, charters have had a grand three decades. For the sake of American children across the country who rely on the opportunity they provide, let’s hope the next three decades are even grander.