Regulating Charter School Quality

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Scholars analyze variations in the regulation of charter school quality across states.

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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

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.