5 insights about which charter schools are opening and why 

5 insights about which charter schools are opening and why 
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Charter schooling provides an avenue for tackling unmet community needs and reimagining how schools work. The flip side of this freedom, of course, is the risk that charter schooling will serve as a beacon to hucksters or mediocrities. That means there is a need for someone to police the quality of charter schools. The task falls to the state-appointed “authorizers,” entities charged with deciding which charters get to open and with holding those schools accountable. 

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Authorizers need to do all this without stifling charter schooling’s innate dynamism. This is a tough balancing act. If authorizers aren’t careful, they can wind up creating paper and procedural roadblocks to the emergence of potentially terrific schools. That’s especially true when they’re dealing with aspiring school founders whose educational expertise may outstrip their fundraising skills, connections, and appetite for mountainous charter school applications. 

This week, a new study from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) helps illuminate how all this is working in practice and what’s really happening when it comes to how authorizers are dealing with charter school applications. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of NACSA.) The report’s analysis of nearly 3,000 charter school applications from 19 states and the District of Columbia offers a number of important insights.

While the growth of charter schooling has slowed over the past five years, authorizers have been approving new schools at a pretty consistent clip. Beyond that useful baseline, the report offers at least five takeaways of note.

Charter approval processes appear to work against out-of-the-box schools. The report finds that some of the most distinctive schools, and those that may be especially suited to addressing unmet needs, are being approved at exceptionally low rates. For instance, approval rates for single-sex and arts schools are languishing at 21 percent and 26 percent, respectively, whereas the rate for all new charter proposals is closer to 45 percent.

“Mom and pop” charter operators are not getting squeezed out. There’s been reason to wonder whether big “charter management organizations” (CMOs), with their brand names, professional application-writers, and foundation dollars, have squeezed out smaller schools. Yet, the share of proposed new charters submitted by “freestanding” operators is at a five-year high, accounting for 55 percent of applications in 2017–18. 

The “No Excuses” school model is in retreat. For many years, at least in the public imagination, the charter school landscape has been dominated by “No Excuses” charter schools like KIPP, Achievement First, and Success Academy. Yet, the report shows that “No Excuses” schools represent a dwindling share of new schools, falling from 22 percent of all approved proposals in 2013–14 to just seven percent in 2017–18. The charter landscape is being populated by a more diverse set of offerings.

Connections and money matter, but it’s not clear why. Charter school applications supported by community partnerships and philanthropists were approved at a relatively high rate (a 58 percent clip) but accounted for just six percent of proposed schools. Meanwhile, schools without such supports — meaning the vast majority of proposed schools — were approved just 38 percent of the time. What’s not clear is whether authorizers favor those with connections and money, or whether things like philanthropic support or incubation may simply be reflections of quality.

For better or worse, for-profits make up a shrinking portion of the charter landscape. Despite the clamoring about them, the number of proposed for-profit charter schools has actually declined by half since 2013–14. Indeed, NACSA observes that for-profit operators “represent a significant proportion of approved schools in only four of the states studied.” In half the states studied, for-profits made up less than 10 percent of approved new schools. Overall, 78 percent of schools approved during the past five years are not run by for-profit operators.

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What should we make of all this? To my mind, there are at least three lessons worth learning.

First, we should be careful about drawing policy recommendations or national lessons from all this, because the picture varies starkly from place to place. For instance, while NACSA found that 33 percent of proposals in Washington, D.C. were for technology-infused schools, no such schools were proposed in Massachusetts. Similarly, “inquiry-based models” (like Montessori) made up 34 percent of applications in Arizona, but just three percent in Illinois and Indiana.

Second, it’s nonetheless clear that charter advocates, authorizers, and others can do more to embrace promising school operators who don’t have philanthropic support or the muscle of a charter management organization. Terrific teachers with a passion for arts education, for instance, may have much to offer but little expertise crafting hefty school proposals. Much more can be done to welcome and support a rich array of promising new schools.

Third, authorizers need to ensure that quality control is about school quality and not compliance or box-checking. As the report sensibly asks, “How can authorizers focus on evaluating the school leadership team’s ability to run a successful school, not its ability to craft an application that checks all the boxes?” Guarding against mediocrity and hucksterism mustn’t mean that authorizers are closing the door on pioneering school models or unfamiliar applicants.

A lot of useful insights here for those intent on making charter schooling work for kids, even if the pickings are slimmer for those more inclined to theatrically celebrate or denounce school choice.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.