Earlier this year, the National Alliance set the stage for a greater conversation around the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) with our new CSP annual report, which details the recent grant awards of the program, profiles grantees and provides important context around recent appropriations.
A new analysis from Bellwether Education Partners, Clearing the Air: An Analysis of the Federal Charter Schools Program, adds to the CSP conversation with a different focus and takes a much more in-depth look at the CSP. The report builds our knowledge base of the impact of the CSP in several key ways, including quantifying its impact on creating high quality seats, and provides a comprehensive look at the CSP’s history, evolution, and future. The CSP is unique among federal programs in that it provides short-term funding to support the creation and expansion of new public schools. Once the schools are open, they receive funding as public schools in accordance with state law.
Rather than attempt to summarize the entire report, I’ll just highlight one of their findings and a few recommendations. The report deserves a read, and they have helpfully provided summary documents of their findings and recommendations.
Finding: CSP program accountability is significant, especially compared to other federal programs
Bellwether makes an interesting comparison of CSP program accountability compared to other federal programs—an analysis that has not been a part of any recent CSP program analyses. The charter school community is significantly different from how it looked in 1994. It makes sense then that the CSP has evolved to address and meet the needs of families and communities. For example, the Improving America’s Schools Act version of the CSP was relatively svelte and brief in terms of the amount of space it took up in the Elementary and Secondary Act. Perhaps not surprisingly, this section was heavily negotiated during the Every Student Succeeds Act and includes much more detail—some of it helpful, some of it less so.
Clearing the Air describes ways the CSP has met needs that include charter schools’ limited access to facilities, stronger authorizing practices and accountability, and growth of high-quality charter management organizations (CMOs) capable of replicating their models to meet families’ demand. The analysis clearly explains how the U.S. Department of Education administers the program, and how the Department has enhanced the ways it monitors grantees and improved data collection.
It also takes a look at the CSP compared to other larger federal grant programs, including the (now defunct) School Improvement Grant (SIG) Program and the Magnet Schools Program and finds that there’s at least as much, if not more, reporting and accountability in place for CSP funds compared to other programs.
While the administration of most federal programs can always benefit from improvement, allegations of lax oversight of the CSP compared to other programs are not accurate. Congress appropriated nearly $6.2 billion to SIG from 2009-2014—more than four times the appropriations made to the CSP during that same period—despite research showing it had little to no impact. Magnet schools received ten times as much funding as the CSP and there is little research on its impact.
Recommendation: The CSP needs a better articulated case for innovation, more risk tolerance
Clearing the Air also addresses innovation—namely how the CSP is intended to both fund innovation while also funding high-quality schools and proven models. Bellwether highlights the internal tension of the program and identifies it as a critical piece to address to ensure programmatic impact. Since 2010, the program has made significant investments in replicating and expanding high-quality charter schools through the CMO program. The state entity and developer programs, on the other hand, have priorities for single-site applicants and novice applicants. Bellwether states that “this balancing act has not adequately encouraged innovation” as not all single-site schools are innovative and, conversely, not all CMOs are not innovative.
The CSP and other programs that fund innovation require a certain tolerance for failure since innovation is, by definition, new and untested. Bellwether recommends that Congress more clearly articulate the risk tolerance that innovation necessitates, and that both Congress and the Department take steps to ensure innovation is part of its funding streams. The report makes several suggestions to strengthen the program’s focus on innovation, such as setting aside funds for unproven models and directing credit enhancement the facility needs of schools with a higher risk profile.
Unlike district schools, a failing charter school is designed to close if the terms of its accountability agreement are not met. Charter schools can also close for other reasons—such as when they are under-enrolled or if they lose their facility and are forced to close. About 4% of CSP-funded charter schools close each year, compared to 3% of district schools. Bellwether says that without a clear case for innovation, critics will more easily say CSP funds are wasted. Innovation requires a level of risk that may result in high quality education opportunities for kids but may also result in school closure: closing schools isn’t waste—it is a means of ensuring that as many students as possible receive a high quality education.
Recommendation: Better measure, capture, and communicate the CSP’s impact
The complexity of the CSP and charter schools across different states create significant data collection challenges at the federal (and national) level. Bellwether argues that current data collection is insufficient to support effective program evaluation—which is the case for most federal education programs, unfortunately.
Given the current political climate scrutiny faced by the program, it recommends that the agency overhaul it data collection to ensure it can measure CSP impact, as well as track the impact of changes to the CSP more efficiently. The more we can all learn from the CSP, the more we can do to support families and students across the country reach their goals.
The CSP has a long history of bipartisan support for charter schools. It saw a record 32% increase in a single year under President Obama—the highest since President Clinton—and greater than its increase so far during the Trump administration. CSP-funded schools serve a greater proportion of low-income students and students of color (60% and 64% respectively) compared to district schools (51% and 41%).
While parent demand persists, nevertheless, opponents are calling to slow the growth of charter schools. Some even argue that students are better off staying in their “neighborhood” school, even if it is not serving them well—many of those in redlined communities closed off to high-quality schools.
In a time when record numbers of students will be experiencing significant learning loss, ensuring access to high-quality schools is even more critical. Clearing the Air does just that—it addresses the impact of the CSP on creating new high-quality schools and makes recommendations for how the program can continue to expand educational opportunities for students who need it most. Now and in years to come.
Christy Wolfe is the vice president of policy and planning at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
Read the full report from Bellwether Education Partners.