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Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that operate on a contract, or charter, which allows them increased operational autonomy in exchange for greater accountability for performance. Although charter schools do have greater freedom regarding some aspects of schooling—such as curriculum or scheduling decisions—state laws govern how charter schools are authorized, the possible length of a charter, how many charter schools may exist in a state, and who may teach in a charter school. As of 2008, approximately 1.3 million students—or about two percent of students in kindergarten through twelfth grade nationwide—attended more than 4,500 charter schools in forty states and Washington DC. In Arkansas, ten conversion and nineteen open-enrollment charter schools served approximately 6,700 students (about 1.4 percent of all students in the state) as of 2008. Although state law limits the number of new open-enrollment charter schools to twenty-four, the actual number of schools may expand over time because schools deemed highly successful may replicate under an existing charter.

As public schools, all charter schools participate in annual state standardized testing. Depending on state law, charter school teachers must hold a state teaching certification. While some state laws allow charter schools designed for specific student populations (such as single-sex or gifted education), charter schools generally may not select among applicants and often are required to use lotteries to apportion the limited number of slots available. Charter schools, like conventional public schools, may not endorse particular religious views.

The charter school movement first gained traction in Minnesota, where the first charter school law was passed in 1991. The goal of this movement from the beginning was to create schools that could have the flexibility to innovate and raise student academic achievement without being constrained by district regulations. Over the next two decades, other states followed suit, and all but ten states had charter school laws by 2008. It is important to note, however, that these laws vary dramatically in their restrictiveness. Some liberal state charter school laws have led to the proliferation of charter schools across some states. For example, in 2008, Arizona had more than 450 charter schools; by contrast, Maryland had only thirty-four charter schools.

In Arkansas, the first charter school law was passed in 1995. Originally, this law only allowed for conversion charter schools. These were district schools that were permitted some level of operational freedom from their district’s central administration. In 1999, the Arkansas legislature passed a new law allowing for the start-up of twelve open-enrollment charter schools. The primary difference between these charter schools is that open-enrollment charter schools can recruit students from outside a district’s attendance boundaries. In some states, colleges or approved non-profit organizations can authorize charter schools, but the State Board of Education is the only legal charter school authorizer in Arkansas.

Legal changes in 2005 allowed for the possible authorization of up to twenty-four open-enrollment charters and extended the length of a school’s initial charter from three to five years. The Arkansas charter law was revised again in 2007; one important change was the removal of the restriction that new open-enrollment charter schools had to be phased-in evenly across Arkansas’s four congressional districts. Of the nineteen existing open-enrollment charter schools in 2008, eleven charter schools were in the Second Congressional District, which includes Little Rock (Pulaski County); four open-enrollment charter schools were in the First Congressional District of northeast Arkansas; three open-enrollment charter schools were in the Third Congressional District, covering northwest Arkansas; and one open-enrollment charter school was located in the Fourth Congressional District in the southern part of the state. Five of the ten conversion charter schools are located in the Second Congressional District, and the other five are in the First Congressional District.

Controversy over charter schools usually centers on school finance. The first issue concerns the amount of per-pupil funding following the child who chooses a charter school over a district school. Depending on state law, all or part of a student’s per-pupil funding goes to the charter school where a student chooses to enroll. Generally, charter schools receive lower per-pupil funding than traditional public schools. Charter school advocates argue that all funding should follow a student to a new school since these are public school students like any other. Charter school opponents argue that traditional public schools are drained of essential revenue when students leave.

The second major financial issue concerns facilities. As in many states, charter schools in Arkansas, unlike traditional public schools, do not receive any direct state funding for school facilities. (That is, traditional public schools can participate in state partnership or various other facilities funding programs to get extra money above and beyond the per pupil revenues, while charter schools cannot.) The same arguments regarding per-pupil funding apply to arguments over facilities funding. To meet funding needs for school facilities, philanthropic foundations sometimes step in and provide charter schools with low-interest loans. Supporters believe that charter schools provide parents with choices and that charter schools can apply competitive pressure that will motivate traditional public schools to improve. Charter school opponents often include groups with interests in preserving existing arrangements, such as conventional districts that lose revenues when open-enrollment charter schools are started nearby. In addition to citing concerns over resources, opponents object to the potential for charter schools to reinforce segregation along racial and class lines. Finally, controversy also exists regarding teacher licensure requirements, as charter schools sometimes obtain permission from their authorizers to employ uncertified teachers.

For additional information:
“Arkansas Charter Schools.” School Choice Demonstration Project, University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. (accessed December 17, 2008).

“Public Charter Schools Kindergarten–12th Grade, 2008–2009.” Arkansas Department of Education. (accessed October 31, 2008).

Rose, Caleb P. “The Academic Impacts of Attending a KIPP Charter School in Arkansas.” Ph.D. diss., University of Arkansas, 2013.

Marc J. Holley
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Last Updated 10/4/2013

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