Pendergrass: The Great, Misleading Debate Over the Growth of America’s Charter Schools
There is currently a national discussion on the recent data regarding the growth of charter schools in America and its implications for the sector. Despite the opening of 327 new charter schools for the 2016-2017 school year and an increase of 200,000 students attending charters, some within the charter movement have described this growth as "flatlining."
While it is not surprising that the rate of growth is slowing, it is important to clarify that this does not mean the charter school sector is in decline. The demand for charter schools remains strong, as evidenced by a survey of parents which found that 1 in 10 parents, or potentially 5 million, consider charter schools to be their top choice. Currently, there are 3.1 million charter school students, indicating that at least 2 million additional parents would choose a charter school if given the opportunity. Moreover, charter schools have consistently received favorable ratings from over 65% of all groups. This is particularly impressive considering the strong opposition they face, as well as the fact that they directly impact less than 10% of Americans each year.
Unfortunately, there are several factors that limit the number of charter schools that can open each year. The most significant of these is a lack of seed money. Establishing a public school from scratch requires funding, and for the past decade, the main source of startup funds has been the Charter Schools Program (CSP) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, funding for the CSP program has remained relatively stagnant at $250 million per year since 2010 (with an $80 million increase last year), resulting in a consistent number of around 500 schools opening annually.
Using basic math, it becomes clear that if the number of new schools increases by the same amount each year, the rate of growth will naturally decrease. It is important to note that the term "flatlining" refers to the rate of growth, not absolute growth. If the charter sector were to maintain an 8% growth rate, approximately 1,200 new schools would need to open each year within the next decade. Furthermore, if the sector is committed to quality and closing the lowest-performing 5% of schools, around 2,000 new charter schools would need to open in 2026 alone. However, the necessary conditions for this level of growth are currently not in place.
Additionally, in the past few years, there has been a decline in the number of new charter schools, with 500 opening in 2014, 420 in 2015, and only 330 this year. This decline can be attributed to research which suggests that charter schools that start off strong tend to remain strong, while those that start off weak continue to struggle. As a result, it has become more expensive to establish high-quality charter schools from the beginning. The outdated notion of a few passionate teachers securing a charter and operating out of a rented storefront or any available space is not the best approach to ensuring quality education. Nowadays, these teachers should receive financial support to thoroughly assess their ideas, hire qualified staff, and establish schools that provide students with the same basic public school resources, such as a cafeteria, gymnasium, playground, library, and media center. Although this requires more startup funding, stricter oversight from authorizers, and increased bureaucracy, the trade-off is worthwhile when considering the students’ perspective.
Indeed, the sector of charter schools has been experiencing a slower growth rate over the past few years. Sustaining the same rate of growth necessitates significantly more financial resources, but that is not the only requirement. It also calls for improved legislation and political environments, particularly in terms of promoting and maintaining high-quality standards from the outset, as well as the ability to close down underperforming schools. Additionally, it is important for the media to accurately portray what charter schools truly are, and what they are not.
It is important to recognize that there still exists a high number of parents eagerly awaiting the opportunity to enroll their children in a public school of excellent quality that they have the freedom to choose. It is imperative that we navigate through these challenges and ensure that the charter school movement is able to expand and fulfill the unmet demand while upholding a high standard of education.
Susan Aud Pendergrass, the Vice President of Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, emphasizes the importance of finding solutions to these issues.