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Charter School Law

National Charter School Laws Across the States Ranking & Scorecard

17th Edition March, 2017

Since 1996, CER’s yearly scorecard and ranking of state charter school laws has provided guidance and feedback to policymakers on the relative strengths and weakness of charter school policies and their effectiveness in fulfilling the true meaning of the words “charter school law,”— i.e., paving the way for high numbers of strong, autonomous, healthy charter schools, that provide meaningful opportunities for families and their children, and the chance for innovation for all involved.

Sixteen successive reports were based on a variety of criteria first designed and validated by the pioneers of chartering. Each year, the national rankings established by CER have not only predicted how a particular law might work in practice, but presented a real-time evaluation of whether, and how, charters are able to operate given the freedoms or restrictions embedded in law. The rankings and corresponding analysis are grounded in the principles and intent of chartering. We review whether a state’s charter school law:

  • establishes the ability for citizens to create schools that are independent, in oversight and operations, from the traditional school bureaucracies;
  • gives schools wide latitude to operate and innovate without onerous administration rules and regulations dictating what they can do and how they do it at every turn;
  • and provides parents with an expansive amount of options from which to choose the schools that best meet the needs of their students.


We are now well into the third decade since Minnesota passed the first state charter statute. The number of charter schools has continued to increase each year at a steady but relatively slow pace. But this past year, that growth abruptly came to a near halt. Overall, the nation’s nearly 7,000 charter schools still serve a fairly small percentage of the total number of students receiving public education, roughly six percent. Some states and cities have far more market share and point the way to what healthy expansive choice does for the whole of public education.

Overall, the impediment to consistent, sustained growth of charter schools is that most state officials view charters, or other school-choice policies, as a core strategy of education reform. National and state top-down policies, intended to broadly impact all public school students or teachers in a state—whether standards and testing, teacher evaluation/compensation, or other efforts—continue to be perceived as the main action, often engendering fierce debates and then later being abandoned after a number of years. Yet, overall improvement in U.S. student achievement on the National Assessment (NAEP) is minimal at best and American students are not closing the gap with our top international competitors.

CER noted in its 2015 report that while “…demand [for charter schools] continues to outstrip supply…” there has been a “lack of progress made in state houses across the country over the past few years to improve the policy environment for charter schools” and, more specifically, “… it is abundantly clear that little to no progress has been made over the past year…”.

In recent years, there has been significant attention—especially, but not exclusively, among authorizers—on a perceived need to focus on charter “quality over quantity”. The strategies discussed have included more stringent approval processes as well as “culling the herd” during charter renewal to let only those schools deemed strong performers continue.

This year, the movement crept to a near halt, a result of these very ill-conceived state policies and what is being termed “regulatory reload.” There is widespread evidence of creeping regulatory intrusion in decisions regarding academic programming, curriculum, discipline, and teacher qualifications. The problem, it appears, is policymakers who are given numerous recommendations no longer know the difference between policies that advance the cause of effective charter schools and those that strangle them.

But are charter regulators really the key actors in improving the quality of teaching and learning in charter schools? We see no evidence of that. In keeping with CER’s historic values and philosophy, which guided the strongest charter school laws, we have introduced some new elements to better reflect the policies to which states should aspire. By focusing on achieving perfect scores in four critical areas, states can reverse the encroaching isomorphism – the inexorable push to make all schools look and operate similarly – and spawn the kinds and quantities of schools that truly put students on a path to access exceptional educational opportunity. Those elements are based on the following principles:

Multiple Authorizer Independence: Multiple authorizers remain critical, but almost as critical, is the independence of those authorizers. A new trend since the 2015 analysis is the prevalence in states of entities we call “uber authorizers,” newly created regulatory bodies, or existing state agencies, endowed with more power to regulate and revise rules. Such policies are sold as “standards” to drive quality, but they are no more standards than requiring a teacher to be certified is a qualitative standard. Uber authorizing provisions put state agencies in control of independent authorizers, negating independence. Those same agencies then become empowered to do precisely what they are not capable of doing – deciding when and how parents should have options over what types of schools under what types of conditions. The net effect is a growth of oversight powers that are intended to police quality but end up micromanaging, and thus discouraging, the creation, growth, and advancement of independent public schools.

States that assure independence for authorizing from traditional state entities and are free from uber authorizing, score higher than those that do not. While still number one in our rankings, D.C. risks losing ground if it continues on a slow but slippery slope of allowing the city and its agencies to micromanage the authorizer’s processes. It’s also unique in that it has one authorizer that was created when the city did not have a “state” board of education, and when the city was under the control of an independent board itself from the city council. That legacy of independence is now threatened by the restoration of city structures that have begun to assert various controls over chartering in the city. The law provides for the establishment of new entities for authorizing, such as universities. Pursuing additional authorizers would allow the existing D.C. Public Charter Board to stay on its feet, and create alternative innovations for opening and managing new schools.

Scaling Up: Much focus has been put on scale in the last few years. Philanthropic dollars, research reports, and even federal policy encourages scaling up of proven practices and networks. But there is more to scaling up than expanding an already existing model of schooling. Scaling up should include the extent to which state laws permit the natural expansion of schools – whether they are single site or network – as well as the expansion of the number of schools. If only proven schools are scaled, what does that say about the notion that chartering is intended to provide for not just replication but innovation in brand new schooling ideas? After all, those who today are proven were once new and unproven.

The rankings account not only for whether a state’s law provides for growth, but whether the policy in law actually results in growth in practice.

Freedom to Operate, Freedom to Innovate: Traditionally, the National Charter School Law Rankings factor in any limitations or freedoms to operate and are awarded points based on such conditions. However, it is increasingly clear that complexities in the law are growing, and they now not only stipulate the degree to which schools are free from state and local laws, but often stipulate substantial conditions dictating not only how and when charters are created, but how they operate. States that permit innovations to be developed and adopted – innovations in curriculum, technology, structure or even the kinds of businesses or partnerships with which they engage – will yield more innovation and diversity than those that do not.

Many critics often argue that charter schools no longer look or seek to be as innovative as had been – reportedly – their intent. It was actually something much more compelling than that which brought charter schools into existence. It was the demand for parental choices for diverse learning options that did not follow the same model as the monolithic school districts. It was diversity and choice, and diversity would allow the creation of innovations. Innovation need not be something dramatic or new (indeed innovation can be doing the same thing slightly differently). The reality, in all too many instances, is that charters have been forced into the traditional education box. Thus, the freedom to innovate reflects whether a state law allows, for example, both on-ground and online or blended models, whether they can contract with all manner of educational provider, whether same-sex schools are allowed, whether there may be alternative high schools with alternative assessments attached to them, and numerous other potential innovations that neither humans or law may have yet conceived.

States that permit schools the freedom to innovate and do not prescribe conditions that look and operate like traditional public schools will rank higher than those which limit variety and innovation.

Equity – As important as being able to open and operate in a state that has multiple independent authorizers is being able to focus on the work needing to be accomplished. To do that requires funding, funding that is often woefully inadequate and often deliberately skewed to be inferior to traditional school districts. Many in the charter school advocacy world have been open to negotiating lower per-pupil dollar amounts to get a law passed, even though doing so would hamstring those schools from the start. Others ignore complex funding formulas or simple words and phrases that sound good in law but can often be widely interpreted in practice. For example, take the word “proportionate” which is in a companion funding law to Kentucky’s new below-average charter school law. Proportionate technically means relative or in measure of other things. Such terminology gives the funding authorities, in this case school districts, the authority to determine what is and isn’t proportional to all other spending categories. They can, and will, self select which funding and which amounts go to charters. Districts can narrow the amount spent per pupil. In other words, just one word sanctions arbitrary decision-making. That is why they were opposed to using the words “pro-rata” in the funding language, which would have clearly required precise, individual, equalized student funding to follow students to charters.

States are evaluated not only on both the policy and practice of operational funding statutes, but also on whether and how they fund facilities and this year, for the first time, Pre-K. If, as it should be, chartering is part of the overall education landscape and education reform efforts in this nation, funding must also be both commensurate and comprehensive.

A final word about chartering –

The debate over charter schools is now divided neatly into two camps – those who believe that accountability means there is additional oversight from centralized government entities, including state education departments and the federal government in driving start up grant funds, and those who believe that accountability is multi-dimensional, beginning with parents making choices and not being confined to conventional definitions of what works for every child.

The parent choice accountability camp also believes that data is essential to any educational enterprise and that it must be available and transparent. The role of government is to require data to be reported; it is not to require hostile government entities to parse and use the data to close schools when that data is not only easily manipulated but often misunderstood.

Raising the academic quality of charter schools is best achieved by enabling students to leave mediocre charter schools and select from higher quality nearby charter school options. The “culling of the herd”, where necessary, should result from stronger competition that enables parents to choose more effective schools, not sudden regulatory termination that dumps students back into the very public schools they were seeking to avoid (and which may be worse). In economic terms, overall quality is raised by good charter schools “crowding out” mediocre charter schools. Charter authorizers should fulfill a significant, but limited, academic accountability role of terminating or not renewing consistently, demonstrably bad schools, by documenting that the education they offer is not only not meeting students needs but that enrollment reflects such failures. Authorizers should also terminate charters for other non-academic reasons, such as safety or financial malfeasance.

To accomplish what we, along with well-known researchers and other choice advocates, agree represents a hearty charter school movement, the emphasis should be on eliminating hurdles to growth of well-managed charter schools and organizations to serve more students.

Charter regulation, approval, and oversight should be transparent, predictable, and avoid micro-management of academics, discipline, and staff hiring and termination. Regulation should be flexible enough to encourage charter schools designed to meet the needs of special populations by allowing them to meet requirements that are reasonable and appropriate for their students. And yet, it is precisely that regulation that is discouraging new charter school growth. With barely 6 percent of all public school students in charter schools nationwide, two percent growth over one year is totally unacceptable and an indication that something is amiss. Risk-averse, highly bureaucratic state and local actors are causing the stagnation. It comes not just from opponents, but from heavy-handed friends. Their heavy reliance on government to solve perceived issues of quality will bring charter schools to a screeching halt unless the policies they espouse reverse course.

We hope the 2017 updated criteria and rankings will catalyze a necessary, national and state-level debate on the most effective ways to ignite charter growth in order to increase educational options as well as achieve excellence. It is clear from the trends that real education reform does not result from local compliance with federal regulations or statewide requirements but, comes instead, school by school and classroom by classroom. It succeeds when educators work with parents at the local/institutional level to create, refine, and maintain high-performance schools that raise achievement and meet the needs of their students. Current charter requirements and policies that unnecessarily constrain charter growth and competition or deter investment need to be rethought and revised. The predictable absence of significant NAEP achievement gains in recent years in all but a handful of communities and states with the strongest laws, and the lack of consensus on what comes next, means there is an opening for fresh thinking on what constitutes education reform.

Jeanne Allen
Founder & CEO
March 22, 2017

Please click here for the official press release
2015 Charter Laws ScorecardCharter School Law Rankings: Read CER’s 16th edition of Charter School Laws Across the States 2015 Rankings & Scorecard here.
“It is abundantly clear that little to no progress has been made over the past year. Charter school growth does continue at a steady, nearly linear pace nationally, especially in states with charter laws graded ‘A’ or ‘B,’ but an even more accelerated pace would allow charter schools to play a more central role in addressing the demands and needs of our nation’s students.” Read More.

Compare how states stacked up previously with the 15th edition of Charter School Law Rankings. For older rankings and information, please contact us.

 

An Introduction to Charter School Laws

Before you can have charter schools, you must have a state charter school law. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws, with Alabama being the latest in March 2015. (The seven states that do not have charter school laws are Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.)

As is the case with most education laws, charter schools are born at the state level. Typically a group of concerned lawmakers drafts a bill that allows the creation of any number of charter schools throughout a state. The content of the charter law plays a large role in the relative success or failure of the charter schools that open within that state. CER has identified a number of factors that can work together to create an environment that promotes the growth and expansion of charter schools. Some of them are identified below.

  • Number of Schools & Applications: The best charter laws do not limit the number of charter schools that can operate throughout the state. They also do not limit the number of students that can attend charter schools. Poorly written laws set restrictions on the types of charter schools allowed to operate (new starts, conversions, online schools), hindering parents’ ability to choose among numerous public schools. Strong charter school law allows many different types of groups to apply to open and start charter schools.
  • Multiple Charter Authorizers: States that permit a number of entities to authorize charter schools, or provide applicants with a binding appeals process, encourage more activity than those that vest authorizing power in a single entity, particularly if that entity is the local school board. The goal is to give parents the most options possible, and having multiple authorizers helps reach this goal. Additionally, it is important that the authorizing entities have independent power from one another to prevent creating multiple authorizers “in name only.”
    For more information on why multiple authorizers are important, please see our Multiple Authorizers Primer.
  • Waivers & Legal Autonomy: A good charter law is one that automatically exempts charter schools from most of the school district’s laws and regulations. Of course no charter school is exempt from the most fundamental laws concerning civil rights. These waivers allow charter schools to innovate in ways that traditional public schools cannot.
  • Full Funding & Fiscal Autonomy: A charter school needs to have control of its own finances to run efficiently. The charter school’s operators know the best way to spend funds, and charter law should reflect this need. Similarly, charter schools, as public schools, are entitled to receive the same amount of funds as all other conventional public schools. Many states and districts withhold money from individual charter schools due to fees and “administrative costs,” but the best laws provide full and equal funding for all public schools.

 

What does a strong charter law look like?

Charter Authorizing: The Truth About State Commissions:
Every few years there is a flurry of activity across the country to create or amend state charter school laws. This paper shows how and why lawmakers and policy advocates need to revisit what has become a dangerous trend in charter policy debates.

The Essential Guide to Charter School Lawmaking: Model Legislation for States
CER has developed a roadmap for policymakers and advocates that focuses on essential elements of charter school law: Independent and Multiple Authorizers, Number of Schools Allowed, Operations, and Quality. This framework is based on 20 years of experience working with charter school leaders, policymakers, and legal experts, and reflects what actually works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to ensuring sound charter school policy.

 

Which states have strong charter school laws?

Understanding Charter School Laws and How They Are Ranked:
Clarifying what you need to know for effective policymaking by pointing out how state policy reports differ from one another.

Every year, the Center for Education Reform rates state charter school policy based on four major components that determine the development and creation of high-quality, autonomous charter schools:
1) The existence of independent and/or multiple authorizers
2) The number of schools allowed and state caps
3) Operational and fiscal autonomy
4) Equitable funding

For more on these components, visit Charter School Law Rankings & Scorecard: The Rationale Behind the Rankings.

Get the latest Charter School Laws Across the States Rankings and Scorecard  here.

School Choice Law

Are Choice Scholarships Programs Constitutional?

The strongest critics of choice scholarship programs claim that they violate the First Amendment (establishment of religion) if dollars are used for religiously affiliated schools. The First Amendment provides freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Choice scholarship programs let parents choose where to direct their children’s education funds. The state is not imposing religion upon its citizens (a concern of the Founding Fathers), nor does offering parents the choice of a religious education for their children substantiate federal funding of religious institutions. As Clint Bolick, Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute observes:

All credible contemporary school choice proposals are constitutional.[Contemporary school choice programs] do not propose subsidizing religious schools, but merely include such schools within the range of educational options made available to a neutrally defined category of beneficiaries (usually economically disadvantaged families). No public funds are transmitted to religious schools except by the independent decisions of third parties. As the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has affirmed, such “attenuated financial benefit[s], ultimately controlled by the private choices of individual[s]”…are simply not within the contemplation of the Establishment Clause’s broad prohibition.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland Ohio school choice program, ensuring that laws returning parental stewardship of state educational funds for their children will not be overturned at the federal level. For more on this historic case, see the legal summary and a special edition of CER Newswire for more analysis and what the opposition argues.

 

Which states allow for parents to choose the right educational option for their children? What are my legislators doing to improve school choice in my state?

CER outlines existing school choice programs in the states. The American Federation for Children also does a great job of highlighting Existing School Choice Programs. The Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute offers an amazing library of all the school choice laws.

Pay Education Fifty a visit to find out if your Governor supports school choice and charter schools.

If you want to make school choice happen where you live, check out ways to make it happen in the Take Action area of our website. It only takes 5 minutes to start taking back your schools.

Where does your state stand on: Laws & Legislation?

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