This month, new leaders and policymakers will begin taking office in Washington. Many of them have pledged to tackle what is perhaps the most contentious issue in education right now: school choice.


The question of whether charter schools boost academic achievement forms the core of education policy debates nationwide and at the state level. Unfortunately, media coverage of this issue tends to be unproductively narrow. Charter schools are often misrepresented and misunderstood, eclipsed by the polarized political arguments in which they are enmeshed. I find that parents’ voices are underrepresented in the debate over charter schools, which distorts the focus of the conversation. As a result, critics overlook the fact that families often seek out charter schools in order to get their children’s basic needs met.


Charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon – their underlying concept was developed by teachers during the 1980s and early ‘90s in tandem with other ideas for education innovation and reform. As originally conceived, an ideal charter school would function as a legally and financially autonomous public school (without tuition, no religious affiliation or selective student admissions) and as such, would be free to customize and manage the school to meet the specific needs of its students.


Two decades later, charter schools have evolved as a way to experiment with education innovations and provide public school choice–especially in communities where access to high-quality education is limited or nonexistent.

The major difference between charter schools and traditional public schools is the autonomy charter schools enjoy in terms of staffing, curriculum requirements, and budget management.  This is also what makes these institutions notoriously difficult to evaluate on a larger scale.


That charters lack the bureaucratic red tape which so often plagues schools subject to traditional governance can be advantageous. Charters are able to initiate reform without the burdensome policies, administrative obstacles and entrenched legacy issues that hinder some of the traditional school systems in this country.


Today’s students are the next generation of American doers and thinkers, and as a country we rely on them to keep the United States on the forefront of innovation and progress. To ensure those students can succeed, our country’s publicly-funded education system must be strengthened. And successful charter schools represent one way, but certainly not the only way, to improve our country’s education landscape.