If a family in the United States is not satisfied with their assigned district school, they do have options besides moving to a different school district, but these options are not available to everyone or even most.

One option is charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that receive government funding but are given the flexibility to innovate while being held to a high academic standard. Like traditional district schools, they are open to all children (though that is often limited based on capacity and district lines), they do not charge tuition, and they do not have special entrance requirements.

Charter schools are approved by an authorizing entity, which in some instances may be the local school district, and are run by either non-profit or for-profit entities. Each charter school has a “charter” that can be revoked by the authorizer after a certain period of time if that school is not producing the academic outcomes agreed upon. The authorizing board provides one level of accountability. Parents provide additional accountability. No family is assigned to a charter school; rather families must choose to enroll their children, or “opt-in,” and they can leave at any time.

Charter schools are relatively new in the United States. The first charter law passed in Minnesota in 1991 and City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota became the nation’s first charter school to open its doors the following year. After the first school, the charter school movement soon began to spread. Numerous states quickly followed Minnesota’s lead and by 2016, 44 states including Mississippi had approved charter schools on some level.

For the 2016-2017 school year, more than 6,900 charter schools are serving an estimated 3.1 million students. In a ten-year period, enrollment in charters has tripled from 1.2 million since the 2006-2007 school year. The current numbers represent about 6 percent of total public school enrollment today.

In many urban areas that have long suffered from having the worst district schools in the country, the charter movement has flourished. During the 2016-2017 school year, 17 districts across the country had 30 percent or more of “enrollment share,” the percentage of public school students attending a charter school,” with New Orleans being the nation’s first nearly all-charter district.

However, charter schools are not readily available to every family who may wish to enroll their child. This may be due to either new laws, restrictive laws, or lack of school options and availability. That is certainly the case in Mississippi where the school districts in which a charter school can be located and the number of charter schools that can be authorized each year is limited.

Mississippi was one of the last states to join the charter school movement. The state’s first charter schools opened for the 2015-2016 school year.

The current law created a state authorizing board who is the sole authorizer of charter schools in the state. If a charter wishes to open in a school district rated “A,” “B,” or “C,” they first need to get approval from the local school board. That has yet to occur, and the focus has instead been on failing school districts. Students who wish to attend a charter school must either reside in the school district where the charter is opening, or they can cross district lines if they attend a school district rated “C,” “D,” or “F.”

This is an excerpt from School Choice: How to Unleash the Market in Education by Brett Kittredge. It was published in Promoting Prosperity in Mississippi.