- In the US, students’ backgrounds and factors such as race and family income continue to be predictors of academic success. Alternative free public-school options, such as high-quality charter schools, can represent just one of several avenues through which to challenge this status quo.
- Through Camber’s work in the charter sector, we come to the thesis that several key equity principles are core to the success of charter school programs in equalizing opportunity for quality public-school education, particularly for students from families who have been historically marginalized.
- These equity principles include: a diverse and inclusive curriculum, responsive community engagement, leadership that is reflective of the students served, restorative—rather than punitive—discipline, and equitable resources and services.
photo credit: Unsplash
Camber Collective has had the opportunity to work in the charter school sector, learning from and collaborating with charter school parents, founders, funders, and organizing partners across the topics of sector strategy and sustainability. While perspectives on charter schools can vary, we see their potential to serve as just one of several means of strengthening equitable access to high-quality public-school education by serving a broad range of student and family needs, with the ultimate goal of improving academic outcomes and advancing students’ pursuit of postsecondary pathways.
Across the US, charter school operating models vary widely across states, districts, and individual schools. School-by-school differences are particularly visible in regard to schools’ incorporation of practices and principles rooted in equity, spanning curriculum content, enrollment practices, leadership diversity, and community-based partnerships. While some charter schools have been successful in providing high-quality education accompanied by equity-based practices serving students and communities that are under-resourced or have been historically marginalized, others are underperforming in this arena. Through our work, we have identified several key equity principles that are common across the most inclusive and high-performing charter schools and initiatives, which could serve as a model for both new and existing charters to follow.
Background on charter schools
Charter schools originated in the US in the 1970s, based on the idea of an organized group of teachers setting up a contract or “charter” with their school district to employ innovative approaches to public school education. The concept of charter schools is rooted in a progressive (though not always realized) ideal: that by allowing public school teachers and leaders to work with greater freedom to meet the needs of their children, they might achieve a higher rate of student success while remaining in—and ideally strengthening—the overall public school system, by offering innovative services and building the evidence base for best practices.
Charter School Statistics in the United States, 2020-2021 School Year
Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 2022 Data Digest: Charter School Coverage.
While charter schools are similar to traditional public schools in that they are publicly funded (though, on average, at a level 25% less than district counterparts on a per-student basis1); offer free and reduced-price lunch; provide programs to support students with disabilities; and are accountable to state and national education standards, there are several key differences between the two. The differentiated offering of charter schools centers on the school’s ability to offer flexibility: choice for teachers to provide innovative instruction and to design classrooms personalized for students, ideally guided by leaders who have the flexibility to try new ideas and create a school culture that mirrors and supports the surrounding community2.
What do charter schools have to offer?
“Nothing works like a charter school that is high performing…
they can go into the toughest situations and turn things around for every kid”
–National charter school sector leader & advocate.
Charter school advocates call attention to the fact that the traditional public school system is working for many, but not all, students; research shows that students that come from families with low-income backgrounds or students of Black and Latino* families are most often the ones left behind3. In theory, charter schools have the opportunity to offer an alternative, high-quality, public-school option to families, and in particular those families underserved by the traditional public system. Recent studies provide evidence of charter schools delivering higher quality academic results for students relative to traditional district public schools (equivalent to an additional 16 days of learning in reading, and six days in math)4. Notably, the vast majority—if not all—of charter school academic outperformance in recent years is being driven by learning gains for Black and Latino students.
Academic Results by Race
Source: Stanford University, Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2023.
Public opinion and debate
According to survey polls, public favorability of charter schools has been modestly trending upward in recent years, most notably amongst Black survey respondents5.
Percent of the U.S. population in support of charter schools, 2016-2022
Source: Education Next, Education Next Survey of Public Opinion (poll results, 2016-2022).
Despite this uptick in public support, charter schools have been the subject of ongoing controversy across the US. Critiques of the sector center on the practices and procedures of charter schools themselves—including whether they equitably serve all students regardless of race, class, disability, or spoken language6, in addition to the real and/or perceived opportunity cost of funding charter schools relative to the public school system.
While charter schools remain a significant component of our public school system (enrolling over 7% of the total public-school population), a constructive debate should focus on building towards policy and practices that promote accessible, high-quality public schools with the goal of advancing equal educational opportunity for all students.
“Schools and school leaders who are clear on their values and what they’re trying to create, focused on sense of community and school culture and united on a common vision, combined with high standards of achievement and execution. Those are the schools that are doing the best.”
– Charter school policy & advocacy expert
The equity imperative
photo credit: Unsplash
We have learned throughout our work that charter schools across the continuum stand to benefit from integrating community-tailored equity principles into their operating models. Charter school leaders, administrators, and sector partners can disrupt the cycles of racism, segregation, and inequitable opportunity for students and families who have experienced less privilege in the U.S. education systems by maintaining a deep focus on and commitment to equity principles. If executed well, charter schools can be one effective tool in the pursuit of educational equality in the United States.
Our lessons learned: equity principles in charter schools
Charter schools are not automatic drivers of equity, but they do have the potential to advance equity when they are focused on implementing a variety of strategies that prioritize equitable access and outcomes for all students. In pursuit of offering a nurturing, inclusive, and race-conscious education option to students and families seeking a high-quality public school, the following principles may be considered as optimal:
- Diverse and inclusive curriculum: Students will benefit from the incorporation of inclusive teaching practices that accommodate those with various learning styles and abilities7. A wide range of leaders in the field stress the importance of developing a curriculum that reflects the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the student population. Schools should be prioritizing culturally responsive teaching strategies that affirm the identities and experiences of all students, challenging a traditionally dominant narrative or teaching methodology.
“[In addition to academic achievement], a high-quality school must be anti-racist and community rooted. You can get a school that has knockout academic results but can still be learning in a racist institution.”
–Charter school non-profit organization leader
- Leadership reflective of students served: Recruit and retain a diverse leadership team and teaching staff that reflects the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the student body; and provide ongoing professional development on culturally responsive teaching. Studies have shown the impact of teacher diversity on student outcomes; increased exposure to same-race teachers is linked to improvements in course grades, students’ attendance, grit and interpersonal self-management8. Cultural competency and connection to the lived experience of the students and their families is integral to students’ social-emotional and academic success and sense of belonging.
“There have been a lot of organizations who have worked to change the face of charter [schools] and diversify. It is time to make sure those faces are seen.”
–Charter school authorizer
- Restorative—rather than punitive —discipline: Implement a restorative justice approach to discipline, balancing rigorous academic and behavioral standards with nurturing instruction, positive discipline, and whole-student focused methods. Several charter networks that have been publicly criticized for their strict disciplinary practices (often referred to as the “no excuses” model) that disproportionately impact BIPOC** students or students experiencing learning or behavioral challenges, have since repudiated this punitive approach9,10. The consideration of a student’s racial and cultural identity, home experience, food security, psychological safety, and social or learning needs should be heavily weighed when forming disciplinary action, incorporating social-emotional learning frameworks and using a trauma-informed approach that prioritizes problem-solving and conflict resolution over punitive measures.
- Responsive community engagement: Foster strong partnerships with parents/caretakers and the local community to involve them in decision-making processes and school governance tailored to the unique needs of the school’s students and families. Create a welcoming environment that encourages parent/caretaker involvement including practices of transparent communication, open feedback channels, and earning and maintaining family’s trust. Implement a transparent and fair process for addressing complaints or concerns related to equity.
“Go to community meetings and listen to build the opportunities that communities are looking for. Acknowledge that this takes more time, but it’s a much better approach towards quality [schools].”
–National charter school sector advocate.
“[We have a] moral imperative to ensure charter work is informed by the families they are serving. There has been a lot of changes in the education system, so want to be sure families and communities are aware of those changes and have a voice in designing their kid’s education.”
–Charter network CEO
- Equitable resources and services: Provide comprehensive special education services and accommodations to students with disabilities and ensure that the Individualized Education Program process is followed rigorously to meet the unique needs of each student with a disability. Offer robust English language learner (ELL) programs to help students who are learning English, and that educators are trained in best practices for teaching ELL students. If charter schools fail to provide adequate services to equitably serve those students with additional needs, a disproportionate burden falls upon nearby district schools to provide for those students.
These suggestions cover some, but not all, equity practices to be considered by charter operators, authorizers, and sector advocates. By actively pursuing these strategies and adopting equity-focused operating models, charter schools can work towards ensuring that all students have the opportunity to thrive, regardless of their background or circumstances.
Questions for further consideration
Policymakers, educators, and communities need to continually evaluate and improve charter school practices to achieve more equitable educational opportunities for all students.
As we move forward in our work within both charter schools and the education systems in the United States, we are considering the following questions:
- How can policymakers, sector leaders, and educators provide guidance and standards for the implementation of equity principles in charter schools across the country?
- How do equity principles fit into charter school performance measurement and data?
- What is the correct definition of “quality” public education that charter schools should be held accountable to, beyond student academic performance?
We look forward to exploring these challenges further with equity-oriented philanthropies and funders, public agencies, and communities, and continuing to contribute to an equitable charter school system that extends equal opportunity and long-term economic mobility for the many students currently deprived of these possibilities.
*While “Hispanic” and “Latino” are often used interchangeably, “Hispanic” generally denotes alignment with Census and other federal data tracking conventions. In this paper, we have used “Latino.”
**BIPOC refers to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Camber Collective recognizes that this term, like many others in this dynamic and rapidly changing nomenclature context, does not fully serve all communities or contexts, but we will use it here for the sake of brevity and uniformity.
Citations National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 2022 Data Digest: Charter School Coverage.  National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. About Charter Schools: What makes a charter school different from any other public school?  The Nation’s Report Card, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP). NEAP Report Card 2022).  Stanford University, Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). As a Matter of Fact: The National Charter School Study III 2023.  Education Next. Education Next Survey of Public Opinion: Poll results 2016-2022.  The Century Foundation. Advancing Intentional Equity in Charter Schools, 2019.  Communities at the Center, National Alliance for Charter School Authorizers. Education and charter school sector leaders’ anecdotes and testimonials.  The Brookings Institution, “It matters now more than ever: What new developments say about Teacher Diversity and Student Success”. Michael Hansen, Constance A. Lindsay, and Seth Gershenson. August 1, 2022.  KIPP Public Schools, A Letter from David Levin to KIPP Alumni. June 18, 2020.  Columbia University, National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Noble Charter Network Joins KIPP in Renouncing “No Excuses” Philosophy. March 22, 2021.
Melissa Mullins is an Associate in Camber Collective’s Seattle office. She has eight years of social sector experience, working with nonprofits and foundations in investment planning, operational strategy, and endowment management. Prior to joining Camber, Melissa worked for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation as the Director of Strategy and Operations within the investment management team. Melissa is also a Birth Doula, most recently working at the San Francisco General Hospital on a volunteer basis, providing one-to-one labor and birth support to under-resourced women and families. In her work, Melissa is focused on economic and health inequities and community wellbeing, specifically addressing the access points, policies, and structural frameworks that cause and perpetuate disparities in social outcomes. Melissa received her Master of Public Affairs from UC Berkeley, where she focused on maternal health, family planning, economic mobility, and policy analysis and design. She also holds a Bachelor degree in Government from Harvard University.
Marc Allen is a Director at Camber Collective and the Shared Prosperity Sector Lead, heading the firm’s Shared Prosperity portfolio. Drawing on his toolkit as a strategist and former policy attorney, Marc leads teams working to strengthen and reimagine our economic and democratic systems. His experience spans strategy and investment design, human-centered research/insights, and coalition-building services for philanthropies, government agencies, multilateral institutions, nonprofits, and socially-invested corporations. More broadly, Marc guides the effectiveness of executive teams in mission-driven organizations, helping to advance their theories of impact, program design, business models, and cultures of belonging.