Why Is Charter School Growth Slowing? New NACSA Research Offers Insights — But No Easy Answers.

 After growing rapidly for the past decade, the pace of charter school growth has slowed in recent years, provoking consternation among some charter school supporters — as well as debate about causes and responses. As my Bellwether colleagues noted in a recent report on the state of the charter sector, there are multiple potential factors influencing this shift, and it can be difficult to know which are at play because recent trends and the different factors influencing them vary considerably across states and geographies.

Ultimately, however, the pace of charter school growth is a function of just a few factors:

  • How many individuals, organizations, and groups apply to establish new schools?
  • What percentage of those applications are approved?
  • Are existing schools growing, and by how much?
  • What percentage of charter schools are closed?

Charter school authorizers (which I was one of when I served on the DC Public Charter School Board) are the entities entrusted in state law to approve and oversee charter schools. These bodies are uniquely positioned to shed light on the first two questions.

Reinvigorating the Pipeline,” a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), explores what authorizer data can tell us. NACSA (on whose board I now serve) reviewed nearly 3,000 charter applications to authorizers in 20 states who oversee more than two-thirds of charter schools nationally. The report surfaces some interesting insights:

  • There is wide variation in the types of schools that charter applicants propose to create, including classical, “no excuses,” inquiry-based or child-centered, vocational, alternative/credit recovery, blended/hybrid, STEM, and arts schools.
  • Applications for some types of schools are much more common than others, and approval rates also vary widely across types of schools created. Schools proposing to implement classical or “no excuses” models are more than twice as likely to be approved than those proposing arts-focused, gifted-education, and single-sex models.
  • The percentage of charter applications for schools using “no excuses” models declined considerably in the past five years, as did the percentage of “no excuses” schools approved.
  • The majority of charter applicants are for stand-alone schools not affiliated with a charter network or management organization. Indeed, despite common perceptions that networks dominate the charter sector, the percentage of applications for free-standing schools is at a five-year high. Schools affiliated with nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) are more likely to be approved than free-standing schools, but, because there are more applications from free-standing schools, CMO-run and free-standing schools each account for about 40% of approved applications. Schools run by for-profit education management organizations, which have attracted considerable criticism in recent years, account for only about 20% of approved schools, and applications for EMO-run schools have declined dramatically.
  • The types of schools that applicants propose to create vary widely across states. Applications for blended or hybrid models, for example, account for more than a quarter of proposals in Arizona, D.C., and Illinois, while authorizers in Connecticut and Minnesota received no applications for this type of model. Conversely, proposals for child-centered models such as Waldorf or Montessori accounted for a much larger share of applications in some states (e.g., Minnesota and Georgia) than others. And groups associated with EMOs accounted for a meaningful percentage of applicants in only a few states but were a big percentage in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona. All of this suggests that what the “charter sector” looks like varies widely across states and communities, a factor that bears remembering in national dialogue about charters.

In some ways, the report raises more questions than it answers. It can’t tell us, for example, why some types of charter applications are much more common than others, or why authorizers are more likely to approve certain types of schools. Further, it’s not easy to tell whether trends in the number of applications for different types of schools reflect intrinsic demand and interest of prospective founders and their communities, or whether perceptions of political and other barriers (such as lack of access to facilities), authorizers’ openness to certain types of models or to approving new charter applications at all, and other political and policy factors are influencing the pipeline of applications that authorizers receive.

These are questions that deserve further inquiry. And given the high level of state and local variation in charter growth and pipelines, many of these questions need to be explored at the state and local level, not just nationally.

But by bringing this data to bear, NACSA is helping to shed empirical light on key questions facing the charter movement — and also countering some common misperceptions about the charter sector. I hope that this work provokes further dialogue and inquiry for the field.

One thought on “Why Is Charter School Growth Slowing? New NACSA Research Offers Insights — But No Easy Answers.

  1. Tom Coyne

    As a business exec who has been involved with charters, let me offer an observation. Starting a new school is like starting a new business. As an venture capitalist will tell you, the entrepreneurial act of starting a business is very different from the managerial challenges of scaling it up. Because the latter is critical to successful exits by VCs, and because many founders lack the required management skills, it is no surprise that as the company’s growth begins to accelerate, many VCs replace founders with more experienced managers.

    This usually doesn’t happen at new single site charters. Moreover, because of the tight economic models under which they operate, attracting the kind of managers who can scale up an operation is usually too expensive. To be sure, there are exceptions — for example, DSST’s Bill Kurtz previously had a successful career at Chase Manhattan Bank. But charter founders like him are few and far between.

    To be sure, CMOs and EMOs can sometimes fill this gap, depending on state laws and their own management quality . But even then, there will often be agency issues (between the CMO and individual charters) that generate conflict and require careful management, which is another obstacle to growth.

    One last point: Another reason that charters haven’t grown is because too many operators and funders are still focused on at-risk students in urban districts. If charters are to achieve critical political mass, they also have to grow much faster in the suburbs, which requires a different mix of academic models and management/leadership/governance skills.

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