The new numbers on growth of charter schools over the last year exceeded even my expectations. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (www.publiccharters.org) recently released these numbers: 600 new public charter schools opened their doors in September, 2013, for 7% growth in the number of operating public charter schools and 13% growth in public charter school enrollment across the U.S compared to the 2012-13 school year.
Today there are over 2.5 million students attending more than 6,400 public charter schools, with over one million names on waiting lists. Perhaps the most surprising data is 100% growth in charter school enrollment since 2008-2009. None of this was even on our radar screen when we passed the first law back in 1991.
Is this cause for celebration? Yes! Parents are demanding high-quality educational options for their children. This is consistent with the 70% approval of chartering across America.
But there are also reasons for caution. Are we holding low-performing charter schools accountable? Are charter schools growing too fast? Why are some states growing faster than others?
Let’s talk accountability first. The charter school “bargain” is this: we provide parents and teachers the independence to create a charter public school that fits the needs of their community, in exchange for their commitment to performance outcomes in their charter. It’s simple: chartering trades regulation for results; bureaucracy for accountability. If a charter public school is not performing (after fair warning and opportunity for improvement), it should be closed. That’s more accountability than district public schools.
The Alliance reports that roughly 200 public charter schools open in 2012-13 did not open their doors to students last fall. The schools closed for a variety of reasons, including low enrollment, financial concerns, and low academic performance. This tells me the charter law is working. The number of closures over the past few years has slowly been increasing nationally. We must continue to look to well-trained authorizers to guide well-planned school openings, to identify early red flags in performance, and to make difficult decisions to close schools when warranted.
Are charter schools growing too fast? On average, only about 5% of a charter school state’s public students attend charter schools. But some states and urban districts are growing faster than others. The largest charter school states–Arizona, California, and Florida–continue to show exceptionally high rates of growth for charter schools and enrollment. Is there room for caution here? Are these schools getting the oversight they need from their authorizers, especially in Florida, where counties also serve as school districts? Unfortunately, not always. Too fast growth in a particular state can create problem charter schools that end up in headlines and affect all the rest. A pattern of charter school failures can contribute to the controversies and myths around chartering.
On the other hand, some states are hardly growing at all. That is usually due to one or more reasons: 1) the state or local political/agency leadership is not friendly to chartering; 2) the law in that state does not match up to the “model” law of chartering, which is key to a robust chartering sector; or 3) there is great resistance from teachers unions or others, often based on the same concerns heard 20 years ago in Minnesota and in 41 states since.
Finally, some of the newer charter school states are intentionally growing at a slow and thoughtful pace, such as Maine, Washington state, and Mississippi. They can learn from the lessons of the past, and provide support these schools need to start strong and perform long-term. Generally, the more guidance and support that new charter school leaders receive in their planning process, the more successful they will be. The more guidance they receive as they grow their schools and meet changing needs, the more successful they will be. The more that charter leaders partner with service providers and friendly groups of historical integrity who have shown a strong commitment to chartering, the better off they will be. Two examples of this are Hertz Furniture where charter schools receive complimentary school furniture and space design services for their new and expanding schools, and the Adjacent Markets Division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which provides laser focus on the specific curriculum and technical needs of charter schools.
Charter schools are here to stay and will continue to grow in our nation each year. New states may yet pass charter school laws; Kentucky is possible this year. Today 32 urban areas have charter school populations of at least 20% of their public school students. Let’s work together to nurture and support reasonable, intentional growth in chartering with the right balance of autonomy and accountability. That is how we’ll have the innovative and quality charter school sector the pioneers envisioned 20 years ago in Minnesota.