The Freshman Class Has a Lesson or Two For the Seniors

The Freshman Class Has a Lesson or Two For the Seniors

The charter school movement is now nearly 30 years old. In these three decades, practitioners and policymakers have learned a lot. States with newer charter laws—like Alabama, Mississippi, and Washington—have learned from the experience of established charter school states.

These newcomers are also building on that wisdom in important ways.

The new class of charter school laws excel in what the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools calls the “four quality-control components.” These elements speak to the importance of high-quality authorizing in a high-performing charter school sector. The authorizer is vital in each:

  • administering a rigorous, transparent application process
  • enacting performance-based charter contracts
  • conducting comprehensive charter monitoring
  • executing clear renewal, nonrenewal, and revocation processes

In the National Alliance’s 2019 rankings, Alabama, Mississippi, and Washington were the only states to achieve a perfect score on at least three of the four “quality-control” components, with Washington acing all four.

The newcomer states are excelling in these areas by intentionally addressing important equity issues—making schools address these questions through the charter school application process.

For instance, Alabama’s application requires potential schools to explain how they will meet facility needs, as well as provide transportation and food services—aspects of school operations crucial to ensuring equitable access. Washington’s application requires a description of student recruitment efforts, including special populations, as well as family engagement plans during recruitment and after enrollment. Charter schools are also held accountable for following through: Mississippi’s performance framework includes organizational metrics on issues like proper discipline procedures and enrollment and retention of special population students.

These small changes can lead to a big impact on charter school quality when they are adopted as high-quality authorizing practices in statute. Incorporating key equity issues like transportation and food services and facilities into the application requires applicants to demonstrate that they have thought through potential barriers to equitable access. Authorizers can be required to include the application plans in the formal charter contract and in accountability performance frameworks.

Nearly 30 years of chartering have taught us a great deal about what works. Newcomer states have benefited greatly by incorporating these lessons into their own laws. Now it’s time for states with more mature charter sectors to pay attention to the energy and insights of the freshmen chartering states and improve their own laws.

Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at

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