Charter School Growth Slows As Opposition Intensifies

Published December 1, 2002

This fall, 2,700 charter schools are in operation across the nation, serving more than a half-million students. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the net year-to-year increase in the number of schools–328–was the smallest since 1996, and the annual rate of increase–14 percent–was the lowest in the reform’s 10-year history.

Marketing experts would view this as an unusual growth pattern for a new product that meets enthusiastic support wherever it is offered to parents, but what the faltering growth rate points to is the intensity of the efforts of charter school opponents to rein in this surging reform movement.

“My friends, there is a war against charter schools in America today,” former Education Secretary William J. Bennett declared at a national charter school conference in Milwaukee in June. Bennett is the founder of K12, a firm that uses the Internet for education delivery.

The attacks are coming from many directions, according to Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation: from state officials, local school officials, teacher unions, and even “blue ribbon panels convened to solve charter problems.”

“I see an awful lot of folks bent on stopping the charter movement dead in its tracks and I also see them making much headway,” wrote Finn in Fordham’s Education Gadfly, a weekly bulletin of news and analysis.

Most of the opposition comes from teacher unions. In Ohio, for example, the teacher union is using the courts to try to shut down all charter schools. The Minnesota teacher union is pushing to cap the number of charter schools and to allow only local school boards as sponsors. The union in Michigan is lobbying to keep the current cap and wants more restrictions on who can authorize charter schools.

Why are the teacher unions so opposed to charter schools?

Mike Antonucci, head of the Education Intelligence Agency, addressed this question earlier this year in a report titled “Due & Forfeit: The Absorption of Charter Schools.” In it, he points out that the teacher unions’ admitted purpose is “to maintain a grip on the labor supply” to the education industry, and charter schools threaten this grip. Being unique, small, and independent, charter schools are much more expensive and difficult for the union to organize than a typical suburban school district with a half-dozen or so schools or an urban school district sometimes with hundreds of schools.

Antonucci suggests charter school operators and supporters adopt the following strategies to minimize the negative impact of the unions on their day-to-day work:

  • Keep your own counsel: Use pro-charter groups.
  • Keep it flexible: Minimize school bureaucracy.
  • Keep it small: The bigger the school, the bigger union target it is.
  • Keep your employees happy: Satisfied employees don’t start union organizing drives.
  • Keep doing it your way: Public education reforms have a low success rate.

“Unions should be welcome to hop aboard the train, but not commandeer the engine and sidetrack it,” Antonucci advises.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

Michael Antonucci’s January 2002 report, “Due & Forfeit: The Absorption of Charter Schools,” is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document 10731.

Chester E. Finn Jr.’s April 18, 2002, article for The Education Gadfly, “The War on Charter Schools,” is available on the Web site of The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation at

The Fordham Foundation also has published an informative new report by Pushpam Jain on “The Approval Barrier to Suburban Charter Schools,” covering Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey. The September 2002 report is available through PolicyBot; search for document #10732.