Scholars analyze variations in the regulation of charter school quality across states.
Charter schools have inspired contested debates over the best way to provide quality educational opportunities. Virtual schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to reveal some parents’ frustrations with traditional public schools. Charter schools, however, may be particularly agile in adopting new learning formats.
Because many states exempt charter schools from regulations that bind traditional public schools, charter schools can empower educators to innovate in curriculum delivery. Although charter schools are public schools supported by public dollars, they operate independent of local school districts.
Such local autonomy, however, has led to great variation in how charter school quality is regulated across the United States. Some states have flexible charter school authorization policies—allowing multiple levels of government and school boards to grant charters and issue accountability metrics to schools—while other states have more restrictive policies. Data suggest that these policy differences across states partly explain variations in charter school outcomes.
Little federal regulation of charter schools exists to address state-level variation. The federal Charter Schools Program does impose some accountability requirements on recipients of discretionary grants offered to promising charter schools. But the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) removed many of the conditions placed on charter school funding, giving relatively broad authority to states to set their own charter school accountability measures. And although ESSA requires that states develop accountability systems to monitor school quality, states remain free to exclude charter schools from those systems.
In this week’s Saturday Seminar, scholars highlight the impacts of different charter school regulations across several states.
- In an article published in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Nicole Stelle Garnett of The University of Notre Dame Law School highlights that most states regulate charter schools by threatening closure, through both the charter authorization process and academic accountability measures. Growing concern that charter authorizers increasingly fail to adequately monitor charter school performance has led several states to enact harsher regulatory policies, such as automatic-closure laws. To improve the charter school sector and improve outcomes for students, Garnett suggests that both state and federal regulations increase transparency for parents and expand school-choice options.
- The standardization of charter school authorization has elevated the quality of the charter sector, but it has also established a potential barrier to entry for new, diverse charter school models, argue Ashley LiBetti, Justin Trinidad, and Juliet Squire of Bellwether Education Partners. In a report published by Bellwether, LiBetti, Trinidad, and Squire recommend that charter school authorizers, school leaders, and state policymakers amend their practices in light of changing student needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, LiBetti, Trinidad, and Squire suggest that education stakeholders replicate the approaches of authorizers in Colorado, the District of Columbia, Georgia, and New York by supporting diverse charter school models while also upholding strong accountability systems.
Case Studies Examining State Charter School Policies
- In an article published in the Arkansas Law Review, Kevin P. Brady of the University of Arkansas and Wayne D. Lewis, Jr. of Houghton College discuss the recent implementation of charter schools in Kentucky. As Brady and Lewis explain, the Kentucky General Assembly passed charter school legislation in 2017 with the stated goal of reducing socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic achievement gaps. Brady and Lewis commend the legislators for focusing on the needs of at-risk students, requiring strong performance-based charter contracts, and providing clear criteria for application decisions. They criticize, however, aspects such as the law’s failure to include a permanent and equitable funding mechanism.
- The charter school application process in Texas has become prohibitively expensive and unpredictable, according to former Texas Education Agency Deputy Commissioner Adam Jones and Amanda List in a case study for ExcelinEd and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Jones and List detail the history of charter schools in Texas since their introduction in 1995, including the early mass approval of low-performing schools. Jones and List argue that the state “over-corrected” with an “arduous, highly proscriptive, and inflexible” application process that inhibits growth and innovation. They call for policymakers to increase application flexibility and revise the external review panel process.
- In an article in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Joshua L. Glazer of George Washington University, Diane Massell of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, and Matthew Malone of Summit Learning argue that the “effectiveness” of charter schools should be measured against the backdrop of community-specific concerns and goals. The authors conducted a study of state-run charter programs in Memphis, Tennessee that the communities viewed negatively as “paternalistic” state intervention. Community leaders articulated a desire for education reform that captured the cultural narratives of the school, included input from the community members, and followed equitable hiring practices. Despite those community demands, the state program set its goals firmly in academic testing performance.
- Charter school success requires a balance between autonomy and accountability, argue Karen Stansberry Beard of The Ohio State University and Omotayo Adeeko of Denver Public Schools in a study in the Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies. Beard and Adeeko studied charter authorization policies in California, which focused on deregulation, and Ohio, which focused on increased regulation of charter authorizers. They argue that the best model for increasing educational opportunities is to increase both accountability and regulation of charter authorizers. Beard and Adeeko conclude that such regulations protect communities and students from reckless charter authorizations and increase charter quality.
The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.