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I’ll bet you know that the pace of charter school growth has slowed throughout the country. But you may not know that while approvals of “no excuses” charter schools are way down, approvals of “diverse by design” schools are way up. That’s one of the conclusions of a new report just put out by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (fondly known as NACSA) called “Reinvigorating the Pipeline: Insights into Proposed and Approved Charter Schools.”
NACSA, which partnered with Public Impact to crunch the data, analyzed 3,000 charter school applications submitted to authorizers over the last five years in the 20 states that host nearly two-thirds of charters nationwide.
This report has special resonance in New Jersey because our sole authorizer, Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet, hasn’t approved any new charter applications since Gov. Murphy took office 14 months ago.
The ostensible reason for this shutdown is that the state’s Department of Education (DOE) is conducting a “Charter School Act Review” (just don’t call it a moratorium!) to assess the need for changes in our 24-year-old law. Repollet says he wants to “connect with a wide variety of stakeholders,” especially “those most impacted by the charter school law.”
Okay. I’ll bite. Who’s “most impacted by the charter school law”?
Easy! It’s families in say, Trenton, who would prefer that their child not attend a traditional district school where three in four third-graders don’t read at grade level (an important benchmark for further academic success) and would prefer that their children attend, say, the prospective Capital City Charter School.
Oops. Capital City Charter School got rejected by Repollet because he can’t review the charter school law and approve new charters at the same time. Also, he violated the DOE’s authorization process. Too bad for the 1,200 parents who wanted access. Maybe they count as “most impacted.” (Note for Anglophiles: “Say ‘affected’ rather than the awful jargon phrase ‘impacted on’. Only a tooth can be impacted.”)
While New Jersey’s charter school movement is stricken with paralysis, we can still learn from NACSA’s research and retain hope that one day we will once again have a functioning process for authorizing new independent charter schools, not to mention a functioning DOE.
Here are a few takeaways. (The NACSA report itself is thoroughly readable so you might want to dip into the whole thing.)
- “Despite their prominence in the national discourse, proposals to open ‘No Excuses’ schools fell sharply in these 20 states. In 2017-18, they accounted for just 7 percent of all approved proposals, down from 22 percent in 2013-14. Authorizers were also less likely to approve the model in 2017-18 as they were five years earlier, as the approval rate fell by more than 40 percent.”
- There are more applications nationwide (55 percent) from “mom and pop” charters, i.e., those unconnected with a larger network. NACSA: “Many educators and community organizations continue to see chartering as a way to better serve children in their communities. Most importantly, these applicants may be launching the next innovative, life-changing opportunity for students.” However, 61 percent of approvals were for charters affiliated with larger organizations.
- There’s a “sharp decline” in for-profit charter schools: “Although for-profit operators (EMOs) in the sector receive much attention, the proportion of proposals to open EMO-affiliated schools fell by 50 percent since 2013-14. In addition, they represent a significant proportion of approved schools in only four of the states studied: Florida, Ohio, Arizona, and North Carolina.” Also: “The vast majority—78 percent—of schools approved to open over the last five years are not run by for-profit operators.”
- A healthy ecosystem for charter school development is essential to a healthy sector. This is achieved when “authorizers, operators, incubators, philanthropists, and community leaders work together to identify and address the needs of students and families. It is these ecosystems that help create more good charter schools.”
- “Some commonly-held beliefs aren’t supported by the data. For one, the charter school pipeline is more diverse—by operator type, by educational model, and from state to state—than most people realize. This diversity of educational approaches may be the biggest surprise.”
We wait patiently for the DOE to complete—to start?—its “Charter School Act Review.” We wish Commissioner Repollet could walk and chew gum at the same time. We think of those Trenton families denied access to higher-achieving public schools. We ponder what Emily Langhorne calls “the emergence of a nationwide anti-charter propaganda campaign, generated by the teachers unions and their allies, that has resulted in widespread misinformation about charter schools.”
And, for the sake of the 35,000 children on charter wait-lists in New Jersey, we hope that one day soon we will be able to apply lessons gleaned from NACSA’s research.