School Choice & Charters

‘No-Excuses’ Charter Schools May Be Falling Out of Favor, Report Suggests

By Arianna Prothero — March 19, 2019 5 min read
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New proposals to open “no-excuses” charter schools have dropped sharply over the past five years. So, too, have the number of approvals for such schools, according to a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

No excuses charter schools are arguably the most prominent and controversial model to come out of the charter movement. They’re defined for serving mostly low-income students of color in prep-school-like environments with high academic expectations, strict codes of behavior, and extended school days or years. This model includes some of the largest and best-known charter networks, such as KIPP and Success Academy.

The model has been both praised for raising test scores and getting more disadvantaged students into college as well as criticized for harsh disciplinary practices and for excluding students with disabilities.

There are signs, now, that the model may be falling out of favor, at least when it comes to proposals for new charter schools.

In a sweeping and rare look at what types of charter schools are being proposed and approved to open across the country, NACSA found that no-excuses charter schools made up 7 percent of all charter proposals last year, down from 14 percent five years ago.

The decline in approvals for no-excuses charter schools was even more drastic. In 2017-18, no-excuses schools made up just 7 percent of all approvals, a drop from 22 percent in 2013-14.

NACSA isn’t sure why, exactly, that both proposals and approvals are down. It could be a function of demand from families or “decreased political will to open these kinds of schools,” the report says.

Charter schools have faced increased political backlash as the Trump administration has promoted them and as teachers’ unions have targeted charter growth in a wave of recent strikes and protests.

Independent Charters v. Networks

Charter schools often don’t get attention until they’re either knocking test scores out of the park or at the center of a scandal over financial malfeasance. This report pulls back the curtain on the types of schools that are being proposed and approved across the country and offers insight on so much more than just no-excuses charters.

As part of the report, NACSA collected 3,000 charter school applications from authorizers in 20 states. Authorizers are the groups given the power under state law to approve the opening of new charter schools. They also have the authority to close charters that are not meeting the academic and financial terms of their charter contracts.

Depending upon the state, authorizers can be school districts, state agencies or boards, universities, or even local nonprofits. For a long time, school districts approved the largest volume of new charter schools out of the different types of authorizers, although that has been changing.

The NACSA report found that the majority of applications for new charter schools come from independent groups and people who are not connected to the larger, charter school networks.

But that doesn’t mean independent applicants made up the majority of charter schools actually approved.

Sixty-one percent of approved schools were affiliated with either a non-profit charter management group or a for-profit operator. This could be because charter school networks submit stronger applications, or because authorizers simply see proposals from established groups as less risky.

While for-profit charter school operators get a lot of media attention, said the report, they make up a minority of charter schools approved. Seventy-six percent of charter schools approved to open in the past five years were not run by for-profit operators.

However, in four states—Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio—a sizable share of the charter schools approved since 2013-14 were affliated with a for-profit operator.

No Two States Are Alike

That leads to one of the key takeaways from the NACSA findings: there is a lot of variation in the types of charter schools approved from state to state.

For example, blended schools—which combine online and classroom learning—are very popular in the District of Columbia, but not in Connecticut or Massachusetts.

Inquiry-based school models such as Montessori and Waldorf are far more popular in Arizona than they are in Illinois.

There is also a wide range in the popularity among school model types. Take classical and virtual schools for an example. Classical schools teach a liberal-arts heavy curriculum with a focus on teachings of philosophers such as Plato. Virtual schools provide instruction entirely—or almost entirely—online.

While classical and virtual charter schools each made up 4 percent of all types of schools proposed, classical schools had an approval rate of 57 percent while virtual schools had an approval rate of just 32 percent.

The same was true for no-excuses charter schools versus alternative or credit-recovery programs—schools that serve struggling students who are often behind on earning credits to graduate from high school. Both made up about the same share of proposals (10 and 11 percent, respectively), but no-excuses charter proposals had an approval rate of 55 percent while alternative schools had an approval rate of 34 percent.

Philanthropy and the Challenge of Access

Philanthropy has played a major role in expanding and shaping the charter sector over the past 25 years.

But most new charter school proposals did not have backing from philanthropies or incubator groups. Those that did, however, had increased odds of being approved.

This matters, the report says, because a group of community members or teachers may have a top-notch idea for a new school, but not have access to funders that established charter school networks do.

The report recommends that authorizers do more than just approve or reject the applications that come to them—authorizers should take an active role in both identifying what their community needs and the charter applicants that can meet those needs.

The full report can be found here: Reinvigorating the Pipeline, Insights Into Proposed and Approved Charter Schools.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.