Twenty years after their creation, charter schools constitute the fastest-growing sector of American public education, according to a report released Wednesday.

Enrollment in these publicly funded but often privately run institutions rose by more than 200,000 students in the 2011-2012 school year compared to the previous year, the report found. That increasing enrollment has yielded a total of more than 2 million students in charter schools — about 5 percent of the number of kids in public schools across the country.

The report is an annual attempt by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group, to track the trajectory of these schools and their market share in different places. The number of charter school students has ballooned in cities like New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Mo., and Flint, Mich. — the five districts with the highest percentage of charter school students, according to the report. And for the first time, 25 school districts have 20 percent or more of their students in charter schools — up from just six districts in the school year 2005-2006. More than 100 school districts have 10 percent of their students enrolled in charter schools.

“What surprised me most were the cities and towns that don’t often get mentioned with regards to charter schools,” said Nina Rees, a former George W. Bush education undersecretary who now leads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “The numbers are trending our way.”

But that growth, some experts say, comes at a price. Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, has been hired by several states to evaluate their charter schools. According to Miron, charters have strayed from their original design as small, innovative pilot schools that gain flexibility by avoiding bureaucratic hindrances like district-imposed curricula and unionized teachers. These days, 42 percent of charter students attend schools that are managed by franchises known as education management organizations (EMOs), Miron said.

“Instead of having more niche, innovative schools, we’re seeing larger and larger schools,” he said. “This is being driven by the private EMOs, who continue to grab a larger portion of the market share.” Miron anticipates that within a few years, fully half of charter students will attend the bigger schools.

The overall growth of charter schools received another boost in last week’s election with the passage of two ballot initiatives. In Georgia, a wide majority reinstated a board that authorized charters, and in Washington state, a narrow majority supported a measure to allow creation of the state’s first charter schools (though the Secretary of State has not yet certified the results). Speaking at a panel discussion last week, education scholar Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said these victories show that charter schools are no longer politically toxic.

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