The Federal Charter Schools Program: A Short, Opinionated History

President Clinton addresses the National Education Summit in Palisades, N.Y., Wednesday March 27, 1996.
Bill Clinton was a keen supporter of the charter idea.

With four billion dollars of funding over 25 years, the federal Charter Schools Program has turned out to be one of the larger and (in my view) more successful examples of government-supported research and development in the K–12 realm, in ways that have fostered considerable innovation. It has, in the words of veteran education analyst Christy Wolfe (now at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools), “played a critical role in increasing the number of charter schools across the country.” It has helped schools come into being that otherwise could not afford to launch. It has facilitated the growth of successful charter networks. And because there are more than 7,000 charter schools operating today, attended by some 3.2 million youngsters, mostly poor and minority, and staffed by 219,000 teachers, it’s fair to say that this major alteration within American public education isn’t going away, no matter how much the traditional school establishment and a cadre of aspiring politicos would like it to.

In the paragraphs that follow, we see where the federal Charter Schools Program came from and what it does—and get a peek at why establishmentarians and curmudgeons are now pushing their political pals to curb it. We also see why it can fairly be seen as a model for federal R & D efforts in education—and how it differs from the other big “D” initiative that Washington launched in the early 90s, the New American Schools Development Corporation.

Though the concept can be traced back years earlier, 1991 marked America’s first-ever charter law (Minnesota) and 1992 brought the second (California.) Only one of these independently operated public schools of choice had actually opened its doors when Bill Clinton was elected president, but he favored (public) school choice, and was a keen supporter of the charter idea. Clinton had, as Arkansas governor, chaired the Democratic Leadership Council and its Progressive Policy Institute, which served as key boosters for the charter idea. In time, he would declare that he wanted to see 3,000 such schools in the U.S. by the year 2000. (That target was hit a couple of years later.)

Clinton wasn’t alone. Teachers union head Albert Shanker had helped awaken America to the charter concept. Democratic legislators like Ember Reichgott (later Ember R. Junge) in Minnesota and Gary K. Hart in California, as well as Democratic governors such as Colorado’s Roy Romer were pivotal figures in enacting state laws that allowed charters to come into existence. So, unsurprisingly, were innumerable Republicans, importantly including—as events unfolded—Minnesota Senator Dave Durenberger.

Charter schools, in retrospect, were a bit of a blind man’s elephant, which is to say one could easily associate them with a number of different goals, missions and reform preferences, according to one’s perspective. They were indisputably schools of choice, yet they were public schools—free, open to all, secular, and ultimately accountable to elected officials. They were—and are—a robust form of school choice without vouchers, but they’re also elements of a vibrant education marketplace in which parents, neighborhoods, groups, and communities can launch schools that are largely freed from the bureaucracy and can thus align their operations with their own needs and priorities, making them a sort of half-way house between voucher partisans and district school monopolists. They invite entrepreneurialism, but that includes teachers who want to design and direct their own schools (which explains Shanker’s support). They empower principals. They give exit visas to poor kids trapped in dire inner-city schools. Because they mostly start from scratch, they sidestep the misery of trying to “turn around” a failing school. They can function as laboratories of educational innovation in their own right. And much more.

It’s not surprising that “New Democrat” Clinton wanted to see lots of them—and was game to pursue that goal despite opposition from teacher unions and the rest of the public-school establishment. (Shanker was an education visionary and statesman in this realm, as in many, but here, as in many worthy reforms that he championed, he could not deliver the support of his own American Federation of Teachers.) Unlike many Republicans, who tended to view charters as something that states were doing—and doing in very different ways and at different speeds—Clinton was also game to enlist Uncle Sam to help make more charters happen faster in more places.

He arrived in a Washington that was already abuzz over education reform in the wake of the 1989 Charlottesville “summit” to which President Bush (41) had summoned all the governors, Clinton included, and which gave rise to an exceptionally optimistic and challenging set of “national education goals” for the year 2000. Bush and his education secretary, Lamar Alexander (former Tennessee governor, now senior senator from Tennessee and chair of the education committee), followed up the goal-setting with an ambitious reform strategy dubbed “America 2000.” The parts that required legislation didn’t get very far in a Democratic-majority Congress that was eyeing the 1992 election, but it triggered much discussion of whether and how the federal role might be strengthened so as to push U.S. schools toward stronger achievement—and also brought much discussion of school choice. Indeed, it gave Senators Durenberger and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman an opportunity to moot a federal charter-school assistance program as part of such a strategy—and to get committee chair Ted Kennedy on board with the idea.

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Clinton entered the Oval Office in January 1993 primed to develop his own version of a federal program to advance the national education goals and eager to include public-school versions of choice in that plan. Congress was still in Democratic hands, at least until the 1994 midterm election. The key Senate Democrat was already charter-receptive. So, drawing on long experience as governor of South Carolina, was education secretary Richard Riley. And so was the Democratic Leadership Council, which helped craft Clinton’s education plan.

In less than two years, Congress enacted both the “Goals 2000” act (a close cousin of America 2000) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization known as the Improving America’s Schools Act. Included therein—pushed by Lieberman and Durenberger, as well as Chairman Kennedy and the Clinton team—was a small, new program of federal support for charter creation and expansion. Congress’s stated intent was to “improve the United States education system and education opportunities for all people in the United States by supporting innovation in public education in public school settings that prepare students to compete and contribute to the global economy and a stronger Nation.” Note the emphasis on “innovation.” It seems clear in retrospect that lawmakers viewed this new program in the frame of “research and development.”

The program’s actual operations, however, were somewhat more prosaic, as federal grant programs nearly always are. As explained by an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, federal support through the Charter Schools Program “is provided to assist with the opening of new charter schools and for the funding of charter school facilities.” In other words, the goal was to support innovation but the mechanism was to open more schools.

And the chief mechanism for doing that, from the Program’s outset until today, is via competitive grants to states of federal dollars that the state then disburses to assist with several years of planning and start-up costs for individual charter schools. Today, that can total as much as $1.5 million for a school over its first few years. In essence, the federal dollars enable those seeking to launch a new school to get it planned and up and running, since state operating dollars generally don’t start flowing until students are sitting in classrooms.

From the very beginning, however, this relatively straightforward modus operandi presented questions that Congress and the Department of Education had to answer. What happens, for example, in a state with a charter law where people want to start schools but the state education agency—the usual recipient/disburser of federal Charter Schools Program dollars—cannot or will not apply for such funds? Since the program is competitive, not formula-based, meaning that interested states must complete a thorough and convincing application in order to be considered for funding, charter advocates recognized that advancing the national goal of more such schools would be hard to do where state education agencies balked at participating. This conundrum yielded a pragmatic statutory fix: A state’s education department is no longer the only eligible applicant. The governor’s office can also apply—and then administer the funds—as can a statewide charter school board or “support organization” such as the Arkansas Public School Resource Center or Idaho’s BLUUM organization. Individual schools may also apply directly for “developer grants.”

Another challenge was deciding what federal rules a participating state must follow when determining what charter schools and would-be operators qualify for support. There was understandable angst in Congress that private schools might sneak in, that schools that discriminate on prohibited grounds (e.g., race, gender, handicap) might seek funding, and that schools not truly open to the public (i.e., those practicing selective admission) might qualify. So various prohibitions and regulations followed, in essence creating a federal definition of “bona fide charter school.”

This was not, however, just a matter of constraining states and schools. The program also tried, via its competitive priorities, its peer reviews and some of its requirements, to incentivize states to pass stronger charter laws (and, of course, to submit timely, persuasive and well-crafted applications for federal funding). The potential reward, obviously, was bettering a state’s chance of obtaining one of those competitive grants. Although such fiscal incentivizing and competition jiggering by Washington invites criticism—as befell Race to the Top a couple of decades later—it’s also a much-used strategy by which Uncle Sam seeks to induce change among those seeking federal dollars. In retrospect, it was good for the charter movement that the Charter Schools Program functioned via competitive rather than formula grants. No state (or school) was “entitled” to these dollars. It had to show merit and promise, at least as defined by Uncle Sam.

In other words, the Program never put federal funds on a stump for anyone to grab in the name of more charter schools. There were always requirements and norms, and some of them brought complications of their own, as well as standardization that doesn’t always comport with innovation. Washington declared, for example, that the way to ensure that a charter school was truly “public” was to handle admissions via lottery—and most state charter laws concurred. But it’s never quite that simple. Shouldn’t the siblings of kids already in the school get some sort of preference for admission so that families don’t get split up? Shouldn’t those living in the school’s neighborhood have an advantage? What about the children of those who teach in the school? And on and on. As is typical of federal programs in every realm, rules beget rules and statutes grow longer. In this case, the lottery requirement effectively ruled out the kinds of charter schools that might want to limit their enrollment to a special population, such as gifted-and-talented students (though it was okay to specialize in youngsters with disabilities), and the regulations could have (but in the end didn’t quite) barred single-sex charters.

It was also evident from day one that start-up funds for school operators would not resolve all the challenges and obstacles to creating and operating successful schools. Facilities have almost everywhere been a huge headache for charter schools, and there was much interest in Uncle Sam helping, whether with outright subsidies or with credit enhancements such that it would be easier to lease or purchase viable places to put those kids and teachers. School authorizers, too, needed help in many places if they were to succeed with school monitoring and quality control, achieving the tricky balance between vouchsafing a school’s autonomy and ensuring its compliance.

Hence as the years passed, the Program grew more complex and multi-faceted as well as larger. Here’s a summary of changes made in the 2015 Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization (incorporating some made in the intervening years), as framed by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which is now the leading advocacy organization in this space:

• The Charter Schools Program now includes dedicated funding for the replication and expansion of high-performing charter schools. In addition, state grants can also be used for the same purpose.

• The state grant program can now be administered by governors, statewide authorizers, and charter support organizations in addition to state educational agencies.

• The state grant program prioritizes funding to states that provide equitable resources to charter schools and that assist charters in accessing facilities.

• The state grant program provides schools with additional spending flexibility for startup funds. For example, they will be allowed to use Program funds to purchase a school bus and make minor facility improvements.

• The state grant program includes new protections to ensure funds go to charter schools with autonomy and flexibility consistent with the definition of a charter school.

• Charter school representatives must be included in Title I negotiated rulemaking and must be included, like other stakeholders at the state and local level, in the implementation of many federal programs.

• Program recipients will have more flexibility to use a weighted lottery to increase access to charter schools for disadvantaged students. Grantees will also be permitted to use feeder patterns to prioritize students that attended earlier grades in the same network of charter schools.

As that summary implies, today’s Charter Schools Program is multifaceted. The largest component is still the grant program that invites states to compete for sizable sums that they then parcel out to within-state applicants seeking to open new charters and/or expand and replicate “high-quality” schools. But what about successful charter management organizations that operate in multiple states and seek to grow their portfolios? That doesn’t align well with a state-based funding program. So a provision was added to the Program that allows the U.S. Secretary of Education to make direct grants to proven charter management organizations to assist them to grow. Thus, for example, 2018 brought 15 such grants, all lasting five years, ranging from $1.5 million for a single Phoenix school chartered by Arizona State University to $117 million to assist with the rapid, multi-state expansion plans of Texas-based IDEA Public Schools.

The Charter Schools Program has also had two elements designed to assist with school facilities costs. The larger one—$40 million in fiscal 2018—is for “credit enhancement,” which makes it easier and cheaper for charter operators to get loans, mortgages and other forms of credit on the private market. Additionally, the Department of Education is winding up an “incentive grant” program that provides matching funds to states for actual school facility subsidies.

Besides all that, the Program supplies “national dissemination” grants to organizations that “support” charters and the charter movement. 2018 saw eight such grants made, totaling $16 million (over the multi-year life of the grants) to groups such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the California Charter Schools Association.


* * *


Looking at this array of subprograms and grantees, one might suppose that Uncle Sam is driving the charter bus. But look at it another way. Federal funding for the Charter Schools Program reached a peak of $440 million in FY 2019—and the Trump administration budgeted $500 million for FY 2020 (though at this writing House appropriators have approved just $400 million). Set those numbers alongside the thirty-plus billion dollars that states are currently spending to support the operations of their charter schools, plus much more by way of facilities, authorizing, monitoring, etc. The federal dollar share is barely one percent. To be sure, most charters also get other federal funding—for disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, subsidized breakfasts and lunches, and more. But those are dollars that all public schools receive. Within the “charter bucket,” funds from the federal program amount to chickenfeed alongside the resources supplied by states, not to mention private philanthropy and schools’ own fundraising.

It’s true that here, as always, the strings attached to federal funding have consequences that may dwarf the direct impact of the dollars themselves. It’s surely true that some of the big charter management organizations and national organizations in this sector would struggle financially if their Charter Schools Program support dried up entirely. And it’s probably also true, as Ms. Wolfe wrote, that over the decades the Program “has played a critical role” in expanding the charter sector.

Yet what that really means is that the federal program has had remarkable leverage, i.e., it has incentivized and lubricated multiple parts of the charter realm. Unlike so many federal education programs, which provide ongoing subsidies for the day-to-day operation of activities and services that Congress has deemed worthy of such subsidy, the Charter Schools Program is more like a fuse than an explosive or (if you prefer a more sedate image) more like the yeast than the flour in a well-baked loaf of bread. One could fairly say that it has performed remarkably well at helping to develop America’s charter school sector—develop in the sense of “R & D” develop. It’s true that not every single start-up grant produced a viable school, and not every single school that opened with federal help has been a great academic success. Not every grant to a state has yielded a high-quality charter program. Not every replication has worked out as well as the original (though some turned out better). Not every dollar has had the hoped-for impact. Not all the “innovating” that Congress intended has occurred, and when it has, the traditional public education system has often been loath to embrace charter-incubated reforms and innovations.

Yet the United States today has a robust charter-school sector that has become an enduring and important, albeit still relatively small, part of American K –12 education. Unlike the New American Schools venture that commenced around the same time and mostly petered out as the grant dollars dried up and participants were left to make it on their own, the charter sector is now deeply embedded in our education system; it’s the most conspicuous element of that system’s gradual shift from one that assigned children to more-or-less identical district-operated schools near their homes, to one that welcomes a measure of diversity and accepts a large amount of parent-driven choice—a profound and lasting change in how Americans view public education.

It’s also worth reflecting on some key ways that the Charter Schools Program differed from New American Schools, beginning with the fact that they operated on two quite different theories of change. New American Schools invested in school “models” that were meant to be innovative, but it didn’t alter governance arrangements, such as district bureaucracies, control by elected local school boards, and binding union contracts. It assumed that the established system could and would embrace and accommodate new models, provided they were sufficiently appealing—and it concentrated on selecting a handful of such models and linking them up with districts game to try them. That means New American Schools also took for granted that its new models would generally be imposed on existing schools—existing schools, that is, within the existing structures of public education and its familiar mode of governance.

The Charter Schools Program, by contrast, was agnostic about the type of innovation that its schools embraced—Waldorf or No Excuses, Montessori or personalized learning, classical or progressive—but instead focused on governance. Its schools were almost all new, not conversions of extant schools, and they had to be independent—free from the district bureaucracy—and chosen by families and teachers. Most also were, and remain, union-free, though that was not a federal requirement.

The financing strategies differed, too. Most obviously, New American Schools subsidized the developers of models while the Charter Schools Program assisted with the creation of actual schools. New American Schools also drew its subsidies from a finite pool of private dollars while the Charter Schools Program had access to recurrent federal appropriations. (This difference fades when one also associates New American Schools with the recurrent federal funding that came with Comprehensive School Reform and School Improvement Grants, though those cost Uncle Sam considerably more money than the Charter Schools Program, which took for granted that these schools, once up and running, would have their operating costs met by states.)

New American Schools largely withdrew from the scene as its funding dried up and its early clients changed their minds or found school conversions too challenging. Yet some of the ideas and approaches that it sponsored turned out to linger and sometimes morph. Examples include Success For All’s approach to literacy, James Comer’s holistic approach to kids (an antecedent of today’s obsession with social-emotional learning), as well as at least one prominent organization—Expeditionary Learning, now EL—that evolved from its Outward-Bound origins into a source of curriculum design, professional development, and a network of schools spanning the district, charter, and private sectors.

By contrast, the federal Charter Schools Program is very much still with us, and the charter movement that it abetted now directly benefits millions of children. It has also contributed to a wider education revitalization—the right to choose one’s school—even as we acknowledge that its impact on district schools has been less than many hoped. Moreover, the competition that it poses to those districts (and their unions) has engendered hostility that seems to be intensifying and attracting more political interest as the 2020 election heats up.

It’s a pity that the politics of the Trump era, the pressures of the upcoming presidential race, and changes within both our major parties (but—when it comes to charter schools—most vividly among Democrats), has caused the bipartisanship that characterized charter policy for more than a quarter century to erode, and with it some of the support for the Charter Schools Program. I hope that it will remain strong and decently funded, for there’s still much “developing” to do in the charter sector, not just more quantity, but also now heightened attention to quality. The sector itself, however, is now well enough established and self-reliant that shrinking (or even scrapping) the Charter Schools Program would prove painful to it but in no way fatal.

Meanwhile, there are at least two other lessons to be derived. One is that any R & D effort that doesn’t take into account the rigidities and often dysfunction of local school districts is not going to accomplish much. Going around those constraints, as with charter schools, is one approach—and one I generally favor. Those engaged in education R & D ventures that they are bent on placing “within the system,” however, must deal with its realities. Innovations in curriculum, pedagogy, and technology, for example, have to be able to be implemented by ordinary teachers, many of them not exceptionally well educated, many with lifetime tenure, and all of them bound by the system’s rules, norms, and practices. School improvement initiatives have to work with school leaders who may not be as strong as reformers wish. Policy changes must be devised to survive the hurdles placed in their way by bureaucracies, local politics and multi-year contracts—or else be limited to the handful of places where circumstances occasionally lower those hurdles.

All of that is far harder to make happen successfully than to launch something new on the system’s periphery. And it’s harder still when the dollars flow via formula to every state and, sometimes, every district, rather than in response to convincing proposals. Scarcity and competition are stronger incentives than abundance and universality. But even they can and usually do founder when the changes promised in those proposals have to be implemented within a stodgy, rule-bound system.

I won’t claim that the Charter Schools Program has fostered much research, but when it comes to development, the fact that it’s mostly about “something new on the periphery” has enabled it to have quite an impact, certainly more than most R & D ventures in education can boast.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a contributing editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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