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What charter schools are Waiting for Superman?

Charter schools have become increasingly popular in recent years as an alternative to traditional public schools. Many charter schools market themselves as high-performing options that provide more choice and flexibility for families. The 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman” shone a spotlight on charter schools, painting them as potential saviors in an educational system in crisis. But what exactly are charter schools, and are they living up to the hype?

What are charter schools?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate independently from traditional school districts. They are established under charters – agreements or contracts – with authorizing entities, usually state boards of education or other sanctioning bodies. The charters exempt the schools from certain regulations that apply to traditional public schools in exchange for more accountability tied to the schools’ performance. Charter schools are tuition-free and open to all students, though admission is often conducted through randomized lotteries due to high demand.

The basic premise behind charter schools is that increased autonomy and accountability will lead to innovation and improved student outcomes. Charter schools have control over their own budgets, staffing, curricula and instruction methods, which allows them greater flexibility compared to traditional public schools. However, they must demonstrate results based on the benchmarks and goals laid out in their charters, or risk losing their authorization to operate.

When did charter schools first emerge?

The charter school movement emerged in the early 1990s, spearheaded by teachers seeking alternatives to the traditional public school system and education reform advocates. The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, paving the way for the opening of City Academy High School in St. Paul, which is considered the nation’s first charter school. By 1995, 19 states had signed charter school laws, and today there are 44 states plus Washington D.C. that allow charter schools.

As of 2019-20, there were over 7,500 charter schools operating nationwide, serving about 3.3 million students making up 6-7% of the overall U.S. student population. Enrollment at charter schools has been steadily climbing over the past decade. Between 2000-01 to 2017-18, the percentage of public school students who attended charter schools increased from 1% to 6%.

Why have charter schools grown in popularity?

There are several factors driving the growth of charter schools:

  • Parental choice – Charter schools provide an alternative to assigned neighborhood schools, especially in low-performing districts. They offer families more options to find the right fit based on values, priorities and needs.
  • Innovation – Charter schools are free to experiment with novel instructional approaches. This allows them to be incubators of new teaching models and tools.
  • Accountability – Charter schools operate under contracts subject to renewal based on academic and financial benchmarks, providing more accountability than traditional public schools.
  • Specialized focus – Many charter schools offer school themes or missions tailored to specific student populations and interests.
  • Underserved students – Charter schools are seen as providing opportunities for disadvantaged students in areas with struggling schools.

The promise of greater choice, innovation and outcomes has made charter schools an increasingly appealing option for many families.

Do charter schools perform better than traditional public schools?

This is a complicated question with no clear-cut answer. Several major studies have found that charter schools on average do not produce significantly better academic results than traditional public schools. However, there is enormous variability in performance from school to school. Many high-profile charter networks like KIPP and Success Academy have produced remarkable outcomes for disadvantaged students.

Here is a brief overview of what some of the research shows:

  • A 2013 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes looked at charter school performance in 27 states and found no significant difference in math gains and only minor improvements in reading compared to traditional public schools. However, charter students in urban areas did show larger gains.
  • A 2019 RAND Corporation study of charter schools in Boston, Denver, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington D.C. found charters produced learning gains equivalent to an additional 26 days of math and 72 days of reading annually compared to traditional public schools. Charter students also had higher attendance rates and were more likely to take and pass AP exams.
  • A 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics looked at NAEP scores and found charter school students performed similarly to traditional public school students in math but slightly worse in reading. The study found considerable variation across different state policies and charter models.

While the data is mixed, one consistent finding across research is that charter school outcomes tend to improve the longer the schools are in operation. More established charter schools tend to outperform newer ones.

What criticisms do charter schools face?

Despite their growth and popularity, charter schools have been plagued by a number of criticisms and controversies:

  • Mixed results – While some charter schools like the KIPP network have produced remarkable outcomes, others have had very poor results. There is immense diversity in charter school quality.
  • Selective enrollment – Some charters have faced criticism for potentially “creaming” top students via selective enrollment and transfer policies, as well as “pushing out” low-performing students.
  • Lack of diversity – Critics argue charter schools educate lower percentages of special education, ELL students, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to traditional public schools.
  • Drain on resources – Charter growth diverts funds from traditional public school districts. Closures of struggling charters can be disruptive for families and communities.
  • Inconsistency – There is wide variation in charter school regulation and quality control across different states.
  • Mixed innovation – While freed from some restrictions, many charters implement traditional structures and teaching techniques.

While not applicable to all charter schools, these are some areas of concern that have been raised regarding the charter school sector as a whole.

What was Waiting for “Superman” about?

Waiting for “Superman” is a 2010 documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The film examines the failures of the traditional American public education system and makes the case for charter schools as hopeful solutions for providing better opportunities to disadvantaged students.

The film follows several students as they attempt to gain admission to charter schools via lottery. It contrasts their aspirations with the bleak realities of the public school system, where many schools are failing and underserving their students. “Superman” is used as a metaphor for the American ideal of the hero who comes to the rescue in times of crisis. The students profiled in the film are “waiting for Superman” – a heroic figure who can arrive to fix the broken education system.

Through interviews with educators, experts and policymakers, the film explores the historical and political factors that have contributed to the challenges facing public education. It also examines controversial issues like teacher tenure and teachers unions. Ultimately, it makes an argument that innovation and alternatives like charter schools are necessary to give students and families better chances to succeed.

Waiting for “Superman” received positive reviews overall and was nominated for several major awards, though some criticized what they felt was an overly simplified narrative promoting charter schools as the lone fix for struggling schools. The film helped propel the charter school debate into the national spotlight.

What were some of the main charter schools featured?

Waiting for “Superman” focused on a few charter schools that were achieving remarkable results with disadvantaged students:

  • Harlem Children’s Zone – A charter network with two elementary schools in Harlem, known for its full-service model providing social services and community programs along with a rigorous academic environment.
  • KIPP Academy – Part of the highly successful KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) nationwide charter network, known for extended school days and intensive test prep.
  • Summit Preparatory Charter High School – An acclaimed charter high school in Redwood City, CA focused on getting all students into four-year colleges.
  • SEED School – A public boarding school in Washington D.C. where students live and learn together full-time in a supported environment.

The film used these schools to illustrate the kinds of educational environments and outcomes that were possible through the charter school model if brought to scale.

What impact did Waiting for “Superman” have?

Waiting for “Superman” brought unprecedented visibility to charter schools and helped shape the public narrative around education reform. Some of the film’s influences include:

  • Boosted public awareness and debate about charter schools into the mainstream
  • Contributed to rapidly rising demand and enrollment for charter schools in the years following its release
  • Put spotlight on high-performing charter networks like KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone and Success Academy
  • Amplified criticisms of traditional public schools and teachers unions by reform advocates
  • Added momentum to policy changes supporting charter school growth in many states
  • Popularized the push for options and school choice by parents and families

The film captured the charter school zeitgeist at the time and gave the movement a significant public relations boost. However, its simplistic pro-charter narrative also polarized the education reform debate further.

Where is the charter school movement today?

In the decade-plus after Waiting for “Superman,” charter schools have become a major force in American K-12 education. Some developments since the film’s release:

  • Steady increases in enrollment – Charter school enrollment has nearly doubled from 1.8 million to 3.3 million students between 2009-2019.
  • Explosive growth in large cities – Charter market share is north of 50% in many major urban areas like Detroit, Washington D.C. and Denver.
  • Increase in nonprofit charter management organizations like KIPP, IDEA and Uncommon Schools operating regional networks of schools.
  • High-profile supporters – Charters have attracted many politicians, philanthropists, business leaders and celebrities as advocates.
  • Backlash and reversals – There has been increasing pushback in some locations, with California and New York seeing new restrictions.
  • Ongoing debate around results – Mixed research continues to fuel arguments on both sides about charter effectiveness.

The charter sector shows no signs of slowing its growth, even as political winds have shifted in some areas. Charter school enrollment grew by 11% from 2015-16 to 2018-19 alone. However, many challenges remain around equitable access and delivery of quality education for all students, in both charter and traditional public schools.


Waiting for “Superman” brought charters into the education mainstream and contributed to their rapid expansion. But scaling high-performing charter schools has proven difficult. There is immense diversity across charter operators and results. While some truly transformational charter networks have flourished, others have struggled with quality and closure rates. Nevertheless, charter schools are an established part of the K-12 landscape moving forward, even as debates persist about their role and efficacy compared to traditional public schools.