A few years ago, Pablo Alba was called to the principal’s office to meet with me, an aging white guy he’d never met before. A lanky sophomore, Alba volunteered little beyond a cautious glance upward as he plunked down before me, but he instantly perked up when I asked him about the typical freshman experience at San Francisco’s City Arts and Technology High School. I was conducting research on local organizing and what makes potent charter schools like City Arts work, and I wanted to hear about the student experience. “You make a lot of friends, it’s small,” Alba said, allowing a slight grin.

Alba, who had struggled at the conventional middle school he had previously attended, would thrive at City Arts over the next three years, thanks largely to the young teachers who tirelessly engaged their classes of restless teens. This small campus—which sits atop a knoll overlooking a sea of weathered, two-story flats—offers a relatively rare opportunity for blue-collar families: a shot at college for their kids.

The charter-school movement now serves roughly 2.3 million students nationwide at more than 6,000 campuses—schools that are primarily funded by taxpayers but free from the bureaucracy and tangled union rules typically found at regular public schools. But the movement, which enjoyed a vibrant growth spurt and turns 25 next year, no longer seems to espouse the same grassroots values that it once did. Charter-school management firms like Green Dot in Los Angeles and the Knowledge Is Power Project (KIPP) out of Houston—many of which were founded by dissident parents or educators—and large private donors now orchestrate key sectors of the movement. Many charter schools fail to push learning curves any higher than conventional schools do, a widely circulated (albeit controversial) Stanford University study suggested earlier this year.

Politically, the movement continues to gain strength. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, received campaign funding last year from hedge-fund managers who awarded $4.4 million total to pro-charter candidates across the state, according to The Huffington Post. Similarly, The Los Angeles Times has reported that the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, and the housing developer Eli Broad (both Democrats) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this past spring for each Los Angeles school-board candidate in support of charters.

But politics aside, when do charter schools lift students? What lessons do charter educators provide that could inspire traditional educators? Is this aging movement, first spurred by grassroots activists, drifting into middle-age regularity—losing its appeal among parents and its inventive edge among educators?

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The charter-school movement began with a simple idea that traces back to a rather odd set of political bedfellows.

Albert Shanker, the late head of the American Federation of Teachers, spoke in 1988 to a gaggle of Minnesota policy thinkers, pitching what he defined as an easy way of liberating inventive teachers from the burdens of staid classroom routines, bland textbooks, and cumbersome union contracts. Shanker trumpeted the idea of granting charters to creative teachers, a concept that had already been floated in policy circles.

Ember Reichgott, then a 34 year-old state senator, listened keenly to Shanker’s pitch. “As a good Democrat I wanted to create new opportunities—innovative possibilities,” Reichgott, who wrote the country’s first charter-school law, later told me. But she aimed her efforts way beyond the union chief’s proposal, instead striving to charter entire schools in which principals controlled their budgets and hired and fired their own teachers.

Labor leaders struck back at Reichgott’s 1991 bill, painting it as a radical plan that had the potential to send public dollars to renegade schools with little public oversight. Abandoned by many of her fellow Democrats, Reichgott said she ultimately compromised on provisions limiting the number of new charter schools in Minnesota to six. Moreover, their establishment was contingent on whether the founding teachers could gain approval from local school boards and the state education commissioner, who at that time happened to be the teachers union’s former chief lobbyist.

Upon hearing of Reichgott’s near-defeat, Shanker penned a rather sardonic letter to his fellow charter enthusiasts: “The Minnesota bill seems to be traveling to other states,” he wrote. “I still see the baby in it, but the bath water has covered it up.”  

The idea proved quite portable, soon finding its way into California, where another Democratic lawmaker, Gary Hart, further expanded the scope of this charter-school experiment. Hart said his number-one goal in 1992 was “to stop vouchers”—taxpayer-funded checks for parents that could be used to pay for private-school tuition. “I viewed charters as an alternative,” he recalled as I interviewed him in a Sacramento cafe.

Thanks in part to support from Republicans, Hart’s bill was passed, authorizing up to 100 charters statewide. He said he predicted they would yield “a little boutique reform, an R-and-D effort just like Shanker was talking about.” Still, Hart worried that charter schools would take hold in well-heeled areas (“places like Palo Alto”), while in urban centers “you would give a party and no one would come.” Things turned out a little differently than anticipated.

Bill Clinton, entering the White House in 1993, quickly embraced the idea of charter schools, touting their ability to “reinvent government” while pushing for grassroots accountability and the ability of parents discontented with traditional schools to vote with their feet. Clinton soon approved federal funding to build thousands of new charter schools.

The robust movement demonstrated how Clinton-era Democrats could spark experimentation in the public sector and mimic Silicon Valley's outside-the-box thinking. Now the Democratic party could look beyond teachers unions for campaign cash; wealthy progressives and Manhattan financiers could offset the loss of support for pro-charter Democrats from labor.  

This new coalition of advocates would change minds coast-to-coast as support for charter schools flourished among local politicians and huge foundations. I attended a celebration of Oakland activists in 1998, where a staff aide to the late John Walton (the son of Walmart’s founder), a bible placed before him, conferred with black and Latino church leaders on how to expand charter schools citywide.

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Do charter schools lift students as much as they reflect the aspirations of political activists and private donors? It seems that the abstract idea of charter schools began to outshine hard evidence on whether they were having a positive impact on student learning.

Established charter schools such as KIPP that have been in operation for years, along with those serving large shares of black and Latino kids, do often lift achievement at higher rates than do traditional counterparts. But charter campuses can limit the learning of white, urban students relative to their counterparts who remain in traditional public schools, according to Stanford’s Margaret Raymond, who tracked over 1 million charter students in dozens of cities over five years.

Raymond—whose research methods, to be sure, have been widely disputed—found that charter students in a third of the cities featured in the study did worse than their regular-school peers in reading and math. I’ve found in my own research that many of the traditional campuses that reinvented themselves as charter schools, such as those in Los Angeles, appear to undermine the learning progress among children from middle-class families.

Again, certain charter schools—including those that have been able to retain strong teachers and offer longer school days—do help students thrive. The campuses run by KIPP, which has access to a range of public and private funding, yield strong results for kids of color. Another tracking study in New York City found stronger gains for charter pupils, relative to their peers in conventional schools.

Back in San Francisco, Pablo Alba’s story helps to illuminate the kinds of charter-school practices that do lift poor or working-class students. When I visited the campus one damp, foggy morning, I observed his 34-year-old history teacher, Danielle Johnson, standing beside her classroom door with a stern look as she awaited the arrival of two tardy girls to their “advisory period.” Inside the room, Alba and others proceeded to work on their “personal reflections document,” sharing with partners six personal attributes that stemmed from family or emerging passions inside school. Advisory period is a bit like homeroom for first-year students and is a place where teachers and kids get to know each other, where relationships take root.

“We see ourselves as generalists first—my real job is to be an advisor,” Johnson said, emphasizing the importance of “core values.” “If you can’t get these relationships down, the teaching isn’t going to happen.” Like Alba, Johnson took refuge at City Arts from what she described as huge, alienating urban schools. She now defines her role as a “warm demander” in the parlance of City Arts.

The mostly blue-collar students at City Arts spend plenty of hours over the year preparing for standardized tests in math and English. But the school’s core work involves hands-on projects, from designing a sustainable rooftop garden to creating a multimedia explication of Emiliano Zapata’s role in powering the Mexican Revolution. They present these projects to peers and parents at evening performances.

The writer Zadie Smith talks of how the lives of teenagers are based on “a relation with verbs, not nouns.” It’s a sentiment that teachers at City Arts—a Deweyian wonderland of sorts—understand, meshing lessons with the “core values” described by Johnson, whether that entails digging into personal challenges or tying their curricula to real-world projects.  

Three years after we first met, Alba stood before a faculty panel for his final  assignment, the capstone performance required for graduation from City Arts; his Peruvian mother sat in the second row. Alba dove into a presentation on a reflective art piece, a black-and-white sketch that he described by discussing his own personal growth. “In the beginning of ninth grade I was a very shy person,” he said. “But by the time I was in 12th grade I was able to make the most convincing arguments of my class.”

He then shifted to reporting on a lab experiment that simulated how oil slicks, like the Gulf BP disaster, can be chemically scrubbed clean. The presentation sparked a flurry of queries from three teachers who pressed for crisper logic, asking Alba to be more precise in explaining how he weighed the conflicting evidence. It was a Socratic grilling of sorts, reminiscent of how some elite private schools nurture growth on multiple fronts. But kids like Alba—many the first in their family to consider college—are seldom expected be capable of this range of learning. “Man, he’s like a smart machine,” one student said of Alba’s performance.

Charter advocates recognize that not all of their schools cultivate such rich learning and downright caring for kids. “Quality matters more than originally thought, and it’s harder than it looks,” said Don Shalvey, who created California’s first charter school and now works in Seattle for the Gates Foundation. “Choice is not enough. We must care about rigor and press for rigorous caring inside.”

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Charter adherents also struggle to dodge claims that their schools exacerbate the segregation of students along lines of race or class, peeling off the more-motivated and affluent kids and parents. In New Orleans, where the vast majority of kids attend charters, district officials recently settled a lawsuit in which the plaintiffs, parents of students with disabilities, alleged that the schools violated federal law by discriminating against the special-needs kids, many of whom were also disadvantaged minorities.

Still, charters today serve larger concentrations of poor families than do traditional public schools. Nonwhite students make-up at least 80 percent of enrollments in over two-fifths of all charter schools, roughly double that for regular public schools, according to a paper published with the National Bureau of Economic Research last month. Still, while advocates say charters tend to admit a more-heterogeneous array of students than do public schools, a growing body of research suggests the contrary. And one national study from RAND found that high-achieving white children often migrate into charter schools at higher rates than do their lower-performing white peers.

Meanwhile, the Reichgott- and Hart-era architects worry that the aging movement may start to exclude youthful, feisty innovators, like the teachers at City Arts. “I still see charters as R and D, a radical experiment,” spurring deep change within conventional schools, Hart said. “I could never see it like a religion,” as have some advocates who aim to make every school a charter school.

The loss of kids to charters has perhaps prompted some leaders at traditional urban schools to mimic the decentralization within the regular district system. Los Angeles has created a network of so-called pilot schools that are exempt from the kind of  bureaucracy that too often produces mediocre teachers or promotes inflexible budgeting. Backed by labor groups—since pilot-school teachers retain healthcare and pension benefits—these small campuses compete for charter students.

Though they may display less fervor than they once did, charter activists continue to help diversify the nation’s landscape of schools; few parents yearn for the public-education status quo. A growing percentage of parents across the country now seek a school that’s outside their neighborhood attendance zone. The issue being debated in education circles is whether charters have gone “too corporate,” said the Gates Foundation’s Shalvey, but “thirtysomething parents don’t notice these debates. They simply see lots of options now.”

And whether America’s widening kaleidoscope of schools will one day elevate student learning overall or simply breed a patchwork of segregated schools remains a pressing question. But Shalvey may be right. A quarter-century later, charter schools offer worthy options for many parents, rich or poor. “I began teaching in the Summer of Love,” Shalvey said. “All those earlier education fads—team teaching, moving classroom walls around—quickly disappeared. The charter movement has stuck.”