Today’s committee hearing on charter schools illuminated the powerful impact charters are having on student achievement, and their particular ability to close achievement gaps in states throughout the country. Despite the existence of over 4,600 charter schools in 40 states – with an estimated enrollment of 1.4 million students – the news on the charter school front is not all positive.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) reported that there are overwhelming barriers to the expansion of charter schools due to hostile state legislatures and arbitrary caps, and that 26 states now have caps or limits to charter growth:

These caps are often the consequence of legislative trade-off – representing political deal-making designed to appease special interests who prefer the status quo rather than reasoned education policy. As a result of the caps, children across the country now languish on daunting wait lists, just waiting to enroll in the public school of their choice, simply because it happens to operate as a charter. An estimated 365,000 students are on charter school wait lists today. That’s enough students to fully enroll 1,100 new averaged-size charter schools.

Testimony provided at the hearing demonstrated that it is the autonomy and flexibility of charters that make them so effective. Barbara O’Brien, the Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, testified that it is the inherent difference between charters and traditional public schools that make them successful.

In Colorado, for example, 97 percent of charters use models that are different from traditional schools, including Montessori, experiential learning, and technology-based curricula, among others. Charter schools create opportunities and open doors for kids who would otherwise be left behind. They do it by using the best of the American spirit — entrepreneurship, innovation, and hard work. They are an asset, not a threat, to our public education system… I view charter schools as education laboratories – taking risks, trying new things, developing alternatives, and pushing the reform envelope. Districts are learning every day from successful models and can deploy their knowledge in other schools.

Lt. Governor O’Brien stated that there are several approaches that add to the efficacy of charters, including more hours per school day, more days per year, good principals, high performance standards, and innovation. The ability to attract the most highly qualified teachers was also noted as a key component to ensuring the success of charter schools. John King the co-founder of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston reported that a single teaching position is filled from a pool of 80 to 100 highly qualified applicants.