From humble beginnings in the early 1990s, charter schools have grown explosively to become a pillar in a market-oriented national education reform in the United States. The fiscal fallout from the financial crisis of 2007-08 constricted educational budgets and intensified the public debate around directing resources to all aspects of educational reform, especially charter schools.
The human right to education is well established in a variety of international treaties and covenants, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The right establishes the obligation of states to provide all young people with a quality education, as defined by the prevailing social and economic context of each country. Guidance provided by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, focuses attention on the acceptability, availability, adaptability and accessibility of education in every context.
The impact of charter school expansion on the ability of U.S. states to implement the right to education for all children has, to date, been little considered in the national debate around education reform. Given the diversity of the legal foundations of charter schools in the states, it is difficult to carry out such an analysis at the national level.
Despite the fact that its public education system is rated among the most effective in the country, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been the site of large-scale implementation of the charter school model. Prominent educational research institutes have analyzed Massachusetts charters and found them - especially the schools located in Boston - to be among the most successful in the country.
The experience of Massachusetts charter schools undoubtedly includes positive effects on the implementation of the right to education. A significant number of students who had difficulty accessing quality education in traditional public schools have been able to do so in charter schools. Many of those students are from racial or ethnic groups that have faced historic discrimination in U.S. public schools. In addition, charter schools are, by their nature, adaptations of the public education model and, therefore, increase the adaptability of the system.
At the same time, other aspects of the charter school model raise concerns from a human rights perspective, some of them serious concerns. The extreme school discipline models employed by some charters and the increased use of disciplinary exclusion to maintain social order in the schools both raise human rights concerns that go well beyond the right to education. Also, the existence of an “enrollment gap” between charter schools and traditional public schools, especially in relation to the enrollment of Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners is the source of further concern. Finally, the way in which charter schools are financed, in Massachusetts and in most other jurisdictions, gradually degrades the financial capacity of public school districts. This loss of financial capacity often leads to mass school closings or other major disruptions to the system. In districts with high charter density, this process can reach the point where the capacity of the district to provide for even the basic educational needs of all students comes into question.
Massachusetts and other states with relatively high charter density in urban centers should reinforce regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure the accountability of existing charter schools to legal and regulatory frameworks. In addition, legislative bodies considering laws to allow further expansion of charter schools should carefully consider the impacts of charter school growth on the human right to education of all children in their jurisdiction before enabling such expansion.