A Call to Action from NACSA
Judging by performance and scale, charter schools have been the most successful and sustained education improvement strategy of the past quarter century. These public schools deliver better outcomes for families, especially low-income and students of color, and they have steadily grown to serve nearly three million students nationwide.
However, in the last few years, the pace of growth has slowed. School performance remains mixed, despite more closures of the lowest-performing schools.
As we reflect on charter school quality and growth, theories vary widely about causes for these trends. Some say charter networks have become too prevalent and the sector is becoming homogenous, losing its innovative edge. Many believe philanthropy has an outsized role. Others assert that authorizers have become too risk averse. But these beliefs are generally driven by anecdotes, not data. While billions of dollars have been invested in the startup and growth of charter schools, up until now, we knew very little about who and what was being proposed—about the charter school pipeline.
That’s why two years ago, NACSA launched a first-of-its-kind research project to analyze this national charter school pipeline. Working with Public Impact, we collected and analyzed nearly 3,000 charter school applications to authorizers in 20 states that oversee nearly two-thirds of all charter schools nationally.
We learned 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, but I encourage you to read on, as there were more surprises related to how much support proposals receive, which models are proposed most frequently, and more.
Ultimately, we get the schools that authorizers approve. The data reveals the significant impact authorizers have on shaping educational opportunities, as the schools getting approved do not reflect the full variety being proposed. This is good news if authorizers screen out bad proposals, but a significant problem if authorizers miss opportunities to approve excellent ones.
Equipped with facts, not anecdotes, we can do better. This is our opportunity. Whether you authorize, support, fund, advocate for, or want to start a charter school, we all can learn from these findings. We can challenge ourselves to take new actions that lead to more great schools for children.
NACSA will share more findings in the months ahead. We also have much more to learn. After all, millions of U.S. children still don’t have the opportunity to attend a great school. Let’s get to work.