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What Are the Rules for Charter Schools? It Depends.

In wake of 2018 elections, more change is afoot in states.

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In the often-heated debates over charter schools, it’s easy for the public — and reporters — to see them as monolithic.

recent report on charter school laws serves as a good reminder that ground rules for the sector — and not just the profiles of individual schools — often vary significantly from state to state.

That policy context is key to better understanding and covering these independently operated public schools of choice, which collectively serve more than 3.2 million students. Many state charter laws have changed over the past decade, according to the 10th annual ranking of them by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group for the sector.

The policies touch on a variety of important issues, including oversight, transparency, autonomy, and funding. They address questions such as:

  • What information must charters make public?
  • Who is eligible to approve and oversee charter schools?
  • How much flexibility do charters get from state and local rules?
  • Are there caps on how many schools are permitted to operate?
  • What accountability standards must schools and authorizers meet?

In the charter alliance’s view, the evolutions in state charter policy to date have generally been for the better. Forty-three states plus the District of Columbia allow charter schools.

“More and more states have better and better [charter] laws,” the report says.

Of course, “better” is in the eyes of the beholder. And more change appears likely in 2019.

The report comes as 20 new governors took office this year, including some Democrats who have called for constraining growth in the charter sector and potentially making other policy shifts.

A recent Associated Press story by Sally Ho identifies states including California, Illinois, and Michigan as places to watch, with new Democratic governors who are “more skeptical of charter schools than their election opponents.”

These states “are home to some of the strongest charter school enrollment numbers, and the outcomes suggest the political landscape could be growing more difficult for future expansion, particularly under Democratic leadership,” Ho reports.

More ‘Transparency’

California’s new governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, has quickly turned his attention to charter schools. He is calling for more “transparency” requirements for the schools and for a state panel to examine the financial impact of charter growth on local districts. During the campaign, Newsom also signaled support for a charter school moratorium.

The governor discussed the issue of greater transparency for the state’s 1,200-plus charter schools on the first day of the Los Angeles teachers’ strike in January, as Ricardo Cano reported for for CalMatters. A “rift over the role of charter schools has unmistakably contributed to tensions and distrust between the union and the district,” Cano notes.

“The governor did not specify what he meant by ‘transparency,’ but in the past he has broadly advocated for more financial and accountability regulations on charters, which educate about 10 percent of the state’s student population,” Cano writes. The governor said “I’m going to be advancing with a sense of urgency,” according to the story.

A report issued last summer by the legal and advocacy group Public Advocates raised concerns about a lack of charter transparency and accountability in California for how the schools are spending public dollars for high-need students, as John Fensterwald reported for EdSource.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools identified several areas for improving California’s charter law in its latest report, including “strengthening authorizer accountability, beefing up requirements for performance-based charter contracts, and ensuring transparency regarding educational service providers” that charter boards contract with.

Meanwhile, Gov. Newsom has set a July 1 deadline for a report examining the impact of charter school growth on district finances, according to an EdSource story  by Louis Freedberg and Mikhail Zinshteyn.

“Rising charter school enrollments in some urban districts are having real impacts on those districts’ ability to provide essential support and services for their students,” a spokesman for the governor told EdSource.

Writing for The Washington Post this week, reporter Perry Stein highlighted a recent push for charters in the District of Columbia to provide more publicly available data on their websites, including when board meetings are scheduled and how the schools plan to spend public funds intended to provide additional services for the city’s neediest children.

“They are public schools, and they should be equally public and accountable,” said Scott Goldstein, the executive director of EmpowerEd, according to The Washington Post. EmpowerEd is a teacher advocacy group that is circulating a petition calling on charter schools to be more transparent, the story says.

The leader of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, Scott Pearson, said “transparency has long been a priority” and that draft rules under development by the board are part of an “ongoing effort” to address the matter, according to the Post story.

A new Education Week story by Marva Hinton predicts that potential flashpoints for state policy this year will include how to make sure funding for charter schools is equitable and how to hold online charter schools accountable.

In Illinois, meanwhile, where Democratic governor J.B. Pritzker just unseated Republican Bruce Rauner, efforts are afoot to limit the power of the state Charter School Commission or eliminate it altogether, Hinton reports. One of the state commission’s main responsibilities, she explains, is to hear appeals when school boards deny charter applications. Pritzker also told the Chicago Tribune during the campaign that he favors a moratorium on charter school expansion.

Charter Caps

The report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools identifies 21 indicators that it uses to judge state charter laws. These factors are guided by the alliance’s model law for charter schools.

The advocacy group says its rankings seek to shed light on “which states are creating the conditions for high-quality charter schools.” Each state (plus D.C.) receives an overall score, plus scores for each particular category. Indiana has the “strongest” charter law, the alliance report says, while Maryland the “weakest.”

To explain the alliance’s top ranking for the Hoosier State, the report says: “Indiana’s law does not cap charter school growth, includes multiple authorizers, and provides a fair amount of autonomy and accountability.” The state also has made “notable strides … to provide more equitable funding to charter schools.”

At the same time, the state needs to “strengthen accountability for full-time virtual schools.” Concern about insufficient virtual school accountability is a common shortcoming the alliance identifies in state laws.

To explain its low ranking for the Maryland law, the alliance said it “allows only district authorizers and provides little autonomy, insufficient accountability, and inequitable funding to charter schools.”

As noted earlier, the lack of state transparency requirements for education service providers was a common concern identified in the alliance’s report. Fifteen states received a low score of 0 or 1 (on a scale of 0 to 4). This score considers a variety of factors, including whether nonprofit or for-profit service providers are required to annually report to charter school boards on how they spend public funds, and whether state law has provisions to prevent conflicts of interest between charter boards and those who work for providers.

Enrollment and Funding

Two other topics frequently highlighted by the charter alliance as areas for improvement in state policy were ensuring “equitable” access to funding for charter school operations and capital projects, plus insufficient accountability for virtual charter schools.

Online charters have drawn a lot of scrutiny in recent years, including in an Education Week report two years ago, “Rewarding Failure: An Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry,” which concluded that the cyber charter sector plagued by serious academic and management problems.” It provided some updates in late 2017.

Here is a sampling of other components the charter alliance examines for its report:

  • Clear student enrollment and lottery procedures, which must be followed by all charter schools.
  • Transparent charter school application, review, and decision-making processes.
  • Non-district authorizers are available, to which applicants may apply directly.
  • Performance-based charter school contracts are required that detail academic performance expectations, operational performance expectations, and school and authorizer rights and duties.
  • Clear identification of special education responsibilities.
  • A variety of charter schools are allowed, including new startups and public school conversions.