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.”