School Choice & Charters

Charters Harder to Get Than Before, Suggests Survey of Authorizers

May 09, 2006 3 min read
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Charter school authorizers are getting “choosier” about which applications for schools they will accept and are basing decisions not to renew charters more on student-achievement issues than previously recognized, an analysis by a pro-charter organization finds.

At the same time, the report says, almost half of authorizers, especially smaller ones, practice “limited oversight” of their schools.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a group that strongly backs charter schools, issued two reports last week that seek to look “under the hood” of the charter school movement. One focuses on the different types of authorizers, and the other analyzes different types of the independent but publicly financed schools.

“The big message is that the charter school movement is not monolithic,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Fordham Foundation. “The differences within the charter school movement, we believe, are just as interesting and important as the differences between charters and regular public schools.”

“Trends in Charter School Authorizing” and “Playing to Type: Mapping the Charter School Landscape” are available from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

The first report, “Trends in Charter School Authorizing,” was based on a survey last year of active authorizers, the bodies responsible for sponsoring and overseeing charter schools.

From January 2003 to January 2005, the report says, the 184 authorizers who responded to the survey reported approving just over half of applications for charter schools. By contrast, they reported giving the go-ahead to about 68 percent of applications before 2003.

The report notes a decline in the approval rate both in states that have caps on the total number of charters and in those that don’t have such caps.

Authorizers “are getting choos-ier on the front end, and they’re getting tougher on the back end,” Mr. Petrilli said.

Nonrenewals Analyzed

Contrary to some earlier findings, the report says, authorizers are basing decisions not to renew charters more often on student achievement than on such other factors as governance or finances. Of 34 cases cited in which charters were not renewed since the authorizers began granting charters, decisions in 75 percent were based on low achievement, the survey found.

The report makes a distinction between nonrenewals of charters and actual revocations of them.

“When it comes to closing schools before their contracts are up, authorizers act not because of low test scores, but because schools are self-destructing financially or organizationally,” Mr. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Foundation, write in a foreword.

Joan A. Devlin, an associate director of the American Federation of Teachers, questioned some of the report’s conclusions, which she argued may be guided more by “opinion than based on fact.”

For instance, she wondered whether student achievement really drove nonrenewal decisions.

“That’s self-reporting and slightly questionable,” she said.

Also, while Ms. Devlin said she was pleased that authorizers appear to be getting choosier in approving applicants, she said it’s not clear what that means.

“They’re approving fewer charters, but we don’t know the reason,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’s about quality and scrutiny.”

The report finds that authorizers have a long way to go in providing adequate oversight of charter schools. It categorizes 44 percent of respondents as having “limited oversight,” generally a weak focus both on quality and compliance matters. It suggests that smaller authorizing bodies especially fell into that category.

The analysis rates nonprofit organizations and independent chartering boards as the strongest authorizers. The Fordham Foundation itself has authorized charters in Dayton, Ohio, and it appears on the list.

County-level authorizers and school districts tend to practice limited oversight, the report says. However, fewer than a quarter of the 492 school districts contacted for the survey participated.

“We conclude that most authorizers at least know what they should be doing,” the report says. “But for the charter school movement to survive and excel, it needs all charter authorizers to make the jump from knowing what to do to doing it.”

The second report, which examines different types of charter schools, is an extended version of a preliminary report issued last fall. The final report includes new analysis of student-achievement differences among various school types.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Charters Harder toGet Than Before, Suggests Survey of Authorizers

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