Charter schools serve about three million students across 42 states and the District of Columbia. To clarify, charter schools are public schools operated by independent organizations, usually nonprofits. Most are schools of choice, and unlike magnet schools in traditional districts, they are not allowed to select their students. If too many students apply, they hold lotteries to see who gets in. Charter schools are freed from many of the rules that constrain district-operated schools. In exchange for increased autonomy, they are held accountable for their performance through contracts with authorizers.
Each state’s charter law empowers a variety of different agencies to authorize charters. The most common types of authorizers are a local school board, a state education agency, higher education institutions, and statewide bodies set up for the sole purpose of overseeing charter schools. Authorizers vet and approve charter school applications, and they also close or replace underperforming schools.
Based on both performance and sustainability, charter schools have been the most successful education improvement strategy of the millennium, and they’ve been particularly effective at educating low-income students. In places like New Orleans, Denver, and Washington, D.C., the charter formula – school-level autonomy, accountability, diversity of school design, and parental choice – has proven far more effective than the centralized, bureaucratic approach inherited from the 20thcentury.
However, over the last few years, the growth of charter schools across the nation has slowed. In an effort to understand this decline in growth, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) examined charter school proposals and approvals over the last five years, analyzing 3,000 charter school applications to authorizers in the 20 states that oversee nearly two-thirds of charters nationwide. Their new report Reinvigorating the Pipeline: Insights into Proposed and Approved Charter Schools unearths important facts about the nation’s charter school pipeline, facts that also dispel some of the commonly perpetuated myths about charter schools.
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