Here’s a little-known fact: in many states, school districts have the power to open and close charter schools. Despite often being cast as foes, for years school districts have approved the most new charter school openings compared to all other types of authorizers—the groups granted authority under state law to green light and oversee charter schools.
But that appears to have shifted in the past few years, according to a new report.
For the first time, school districts are no longer granting the most new charters, says the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which analyzed charter school opening data from all states with charter schools and the District of Columbia from 2013 to 2016. And nobody is quite sure why.
In 2013, school districts approved the opening of 56 percent of all new charter schools, or 357 new campuses. By 2016, that percentage dropped to 41 percent, or 135 new campuses.
The largest drops were seen among school districts that authorize relatively fewer charter schools to begin with. School districts that oversee fewer than five charter schools had green-lighted a comparatively large number of charter schools in 2013.
In the past four years, state education agencies and independent charter boards—special agencies whose sole task is to oversee charter schools statewide—have taken the lead for approving the most new charter schools.
NACSA sorts authorizers into six types: independent chartering boards, state education agencies, higher education institutions, non-educational government entities such as a mayor’s office, nonprofit organizations, and, of course, local education agencies or school districts.
While all types of authorizers have been approving fewer charter schools, by far the most significant slow-down was among school districts.
Why charter school approvals are down, particularly among districts, is something NACSA is trying to figure out, said its CEO, Greg Richmond. Are fewer people applying to open charter schools, or are authorizers turning more charter school applications down?
“We see a number of things going on across the country,” said Richmond. “Facilities are harder to come by for charters. Some charter networks are deciding to slow down their growth and focus more on the quality of their existing schools rather than opening the next campus.”
And then there’s the politics surrounding charter schools, which Richmond described as becoming increasingly “toxic.” Some high-profile ballot measures and school board elections have become multi-million-dollar standoffs between teachers’ unions and deep-pocketed charter school backers.
“The toll of politics has a greater effect on school districts than these other types of authorizing bodies,” he said.
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Correction: This story has been corrected to show that all states with charter schools were included in the analysis.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.