With more than 1.7 million students enrolled in nearly 5,500 schools and federal funding on the rise, charter schools are now widely considered a mainstream form of education.
When her daughter Jayci started kindergarten at her neighborhood public school in the Bronx, N.Y., Catherine Davis was "instantly disappointed" in the curriculum: Jayci's teachers gave her the same worksheets she'd been doing in preschool.
"I just couldn't believe it because I feel that in kindergarten is when kids are first starting out, that's when you can build a foundation," Davis said. "And I think that's when you have to provide them with a solid curriculum and challenging work."
Midway through kindergarten, however, a place opened up for Jayci at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence, ranked in the top 6 percent of all New York City public elementary schools despite its location in a lower-income borough of the city where less than half of traditional public schools meet state standards.
Jayci started second grade there this fall, and her mother, who calls the school a "gem" for her community, said she appreciates the charter school's smaller class sizes and greater personal attention.
"Kids were greeted at the door in the morning by teachers who were smiling and knew each child by name," she said.
Since the first federally funded charter school opened 20 years ago in Minnesota, thousands of parents have made the same decision as Davis, choosing charter schools as an alternative to an education system that they fear is failing their children. The charter school experiment has drawn praise for its flexibility of curriculum but also has come under fire for lack of oversight and mismanagement.