Solutions to Charter Bottlenecks

The number of charter schools continues to expand nationally by about 500 school per year.  Growth rates have been dampened by school district push back as charters move into the suburbs as described in the NYTimes today.  The article quotes districts worried about losing money and enrollment.
While charter battles rage, online learning continues to grow by almost 50% annually.  Historically, parents that could afford to move to neighborhoods with good schools have done so.  Now, where possible, students and families are exercising full and part time educational choice online.  There are now twice as many kids learning online (full and part time) as are enrolled in charters.
In an effort to boost charter quality, the application process has become much more difficult, bureaucratic, and expensive.  The application process–which takes about 18 months and requires substantial technical expertise–is excluding small nonprofit organizations and community groups.  When you include pre-opening cost and operating loses during the first two years, a new school can easily cost a nonprofit charter board more than $1.5 million to open–more if they buy or need to improve facilities.
To address the authorizing bottleneck, states need to update charter laws and invest in capacity.  A paper I wrote for the charter authorizers association describes a multiple pathway approach to authorizing.  Suggestions includes a ‘fast track’ for high performing networks, quick trials and a short leash for innovative schools, and incentives and appropriate metrics for school committed to serving special need and disconnected youth.
The fiscal crisis has been a double whammy for charters.  It has increased school district resistance (i.e., they are broke and don’t want to lose more money and kids) and it has reduced funding (grants as well as operating support).  The growth of online learning is a partial substitute for school choice, but the real solution is weighted student funding that follows the student to the best learning experience.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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