School Choice & Charters

Charter School Governance Shapes Those Schools’ Approach to Equity

By Libby Stanford — January 12, 2023 5 min read
Young students file back into school at Somerset Academy Charter South Miami, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in South Miami, Fla.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Many charter schools set out to be a more equitable alternative to the traditional public school system, but whether they actually commit to equity best practices depends on the entities authorizing them, a new study concludes.

The National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice at Tulane University, which studies school choice, analyzed charter school applications across the country to determine what role charter authorizers, the entities that govern charter schools, play in shaping equity.

Authorizers that share clear commitments to equity were more likely to receive applications for new charter schools that prioritize equity best practices, such as plans to serve a diverse population of students, hire teachers prepared with skills to serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and provide wraparound services for low-income students.

Conversely, authorizers that prioritize growing the charter school market over equity were less likely to receive applications that showed a commitment to equity.

Authorizers can be any number of entities, from local school boards and state boards of education, to universities and entities created specifically for approving and governing charter schools.

“This suggests to us that those beliefs and the practices of authorizers are shaping what [charter school] applicants are submitting to those authorizers,” Katrina Bulkley, the acting dean of the school of education at Montclair State University and one of the authors of the report, said during an event to discuss the future of charter schools. The event was hosted by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based policy think tank.

The research comes after the Biden administration changed its rules for the Charter Schools Program, which provides federal grants to charters in their first three years of operation. The new rules emphasize community partnerships, efforts to limit racial segregation, and a crackdown on for-profit charter-management organizations. Those rules prompted pushback from charter school advocates, who argued they place too many barriers in the way of new charter schools.

What is a charter school authorizer?

Nearly 90 percent of charter school authorizers are local school districts, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. They can also be state education agencies, independent boards, universities, municipalities, and nonprofit organizations.

Authorizers have the power to approve new charter schools, oversee charter school performance, and set operation and academic expectations for charter schools. Although they are “the gatekeepers and shapers” of charter schools, researchers don’t know much about them or the true impact they have on charter school outcomes, Bulkley said.

“While we know very little about their role, we do know on the face of it they are a potentially powerful piece of the equation,” she said.

Bulkley and the report’s other researchers analyzed how applications for new charter schools compared to the stated mission, values, and goals of nine authorizers, including state entities, school districts, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations. They examined indicators of equity that Bulkley considered to be “low-hanging fruit,” such as whether a school plans to have robust community engagement, the diversity of school founders, and whether the school’s mission and vision mention equity.

Bulkley considers the study to be a framework for further research examining how authorizers influence charter schools. She said she hopes future research will look into how charter authorizers influence practices after charter schools open.

“This, to me, provides really strong evidence that authorizers are a critical piece of the puzzle,” Bulkley said. “We’re looking here at equity orientation, but if we know that authorizers are shaping the nature of the applications submitted to those authorizers, … then we need to be really talking more about what it is authorizers do and can do.”

A tense moment for charter schools

The research on charter schools comes at a tense time for advocates and opponents as the Biden administration’s new funding rules stirred controversy in the charter community.

The U.S. Department of Education hopes to curb premature charter school closures with the rules. Fifteen percent of schools that received the federal grants either never opened or closed within three years. That amounts to around $175 million in federal funding that was wasted, Roberto Rodríguez, the assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy development at the Education Department, said during a panel discussion as part of the Brookings Institution event.

“We believe that it’s a responsibility on the part of our department to advance a rulemaking that supports the strength of the program, the longevity of the program, and addresses some of what we’re seeing around some of the challenges around fiscal transparency and accountability,” Rodríguez said. “That is certainly a minority of our public charter schools, but we do see challenges there that need to be addressed.”

When first proposed in March, many charter advocates felt the rules created an unfair playing field for charter schools, requiring them to jump through more hoops than traditional public schools to receive funding.

One of the most controversial aspects of the initial rules required charter schools to partner with traditional public schools. Charter advocates felt such a mandate would give public schools the power to prevent charter schools from opening by not partnering with them. In the final rules, the department removed partnerships as a requirement and instead strongly recommended them.

But overall politicization of charter schools has made it difficult for charters and public schools to work together in some cases, said Shavar Jeffries, the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a network of 280 charter schools.

“Sometimes on the traditional district side, they’re not interested in the practices we’re trying to share,” Jeffries said during the panel. “That’s sadly because of how the issue has become politicized. In some communities, unfortunately, not only is there a reticence to receive some of the best practices that are at work, some people are actually acting aggressively to undermine the capacity for public charter schools to exist.”

Jeffries said he would have rather seen the Education Department leave the charter school program rules as they were. Jeffries didn’t deny that there are instances of charter schools wasting public funds or committing fraud, but he believes they receive outsized attention.

“Is there always waste, fraud, and abuse in any program? Absolutely,” Jeffries said. “Do I think in the media environment, in our political environment, that oftentimes those stories are overstated and overtold? Absolutely. The vast majority of folks are working their butts off and doing good things with public resources.”

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters The Push for School Choice Is Accelerating
States across the country are considering sweeping school choice bills that would send public funds to private schools.
6 min read
Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.
Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school on Jan. 25, 2023, to protest legislation that would create private-school vouchers in the state. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.
Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
School Choice & Charters Q&A Voucher Programs Gain Strength With Help From the Courts, An Expert Says
A school choice expert explains how recent rulings could prevent future voucher programs from getting blocked by opponents.
8 min read
Group of white paper planes going in one direction on a light blue background with one individual red paper plane heading in a different direction
E+/Getty
School Choice & Charters Charter School Enrollment Holds Steady After Big Early Pandemic Growth
The numbers show that most students who left their district schools in the first year of the pandemic did not return.
2 min read
Image of an empty classroom.
urfinguss/iStock/Getty
School Choice & Charters Federal Funding and Charter School Closures: What the Latest Government Data Show
The Government Accountability Office examined closure rates over 15 years and $2.5 billion of federal funding.
2 min read
Illustration of weighing funding against schools remaining open
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty