Charter school expansion: A promising alternative to turnarounds

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Turning around low-performing schools is hard. Most strategies financed by federal dollars have long shown disappointing results, and states have avoided fundamental reforms, instead hiring specialists and retraining school staff.

But states have the opportunity to do something different under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows them to try creative strategies for fixing their worst schools, and education leaders ought to take advantage of it. As Nelson Smith and I argue in a recent article in NASBE’s The Standard, one promising option is charter school expansion, wherein struggling schools are replaced by charters.

Under ESSA, states must identify and take action on two types of troubled schools: those requiring comprehensive support and improvement (the lowest achieving 5 percent of Title I schools, plus high schools with low graduation rates) and those that need targeted improvement because they routinely fail a particular group such as low-income, minority, or special education students.

ESSA is intentionally silent on what states should do about such schools—even when they require “rigorous intervention” because more timid correctives have not worked. This deference is a major change from the No Child Left Behind Act, as is ESSA’s scrapping of NCLB’s School Improvement Grants. States are instead required to set aside 7 percent of their Title I funds to turn around low-performing schools using “evidence-based improvements” of their choosing. The 2018 appropriations bill signed in March provides $15.8 billion for Title I, meaning $1.1 billion is available for these efforts in the current fiscal year.

All fifty states and the District of Columbia have now submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education to meet these and other ESSA obligations. The agency did not ask for many specifics on how states would handle turnarounds, however, so most avoided tipping their hands. And every state’s new budget, superintendent contract negotiations, and annual list of education board priorities is an opportunity for leaders to review progress and fill gaps.

There are at least two persuasive reasons charter school expansion is a turnaround strategy worth pursuing. The first is that charters have long shown promising results for disadvantaged students trapped in struggling schools. CREDO’s massive 2015 study of urban charter schools, for example, which reviewed forty-one regions, concluded that “[U]rban charter students [are] receiving the equivalent of roughly forty days of additional learning per year in math and twenty-eight additional days of learning per year in reading” compared to their peers in traditional public schools. The study revealed particularly strong charter performance for “black, Hispanic, low-income, and special-education students in both math and reading.” Of the regions studied, “regions with larger learning gains in charter schools outnumber those with smaller learning gains two-to-one.”

Second, as Fordham’s recent report, Charter School Deserts, finds, there are more than 450 areas across the country ripe for just this sort of charter school creation. The report defined “charter school deserts” as areas of three or more contiguous census tracts with moderate or high poverty and no charter elementary schools. It finds that thirty-nine of forty-two charter states have at least one desert each—and the average number of deserts per state is a worrying 10.8. That’s a lot of deserts. And because schools with higher levels of poverty are more likely to be low performing, that’s a lot of opportunities for states to use charter school expansion as a way to improve the plight of students attending struggling schools.

To be sure, there’s no magic in the word “charter.” Getting the best out of this model requires vigilant authorizers, adequate resources, and diligent management. But charters can achieve powerful results by innovating in talent, professional development, curriculum, school structure, schedules, and beyond. And they seem to have the strongest comparative advantage in the distressed areas where the needs for a fresh start are greatest.

Efforts in Texas and Florida provide possible templates. Back in March, the U.S. Department of Education approved Texas’s ESSA plan. And as my colleague Mike Petrilli wrote, this was a “big, big deal.” That’s because the state included provisions in its plan describing how it intends to use its Title I set aside money for, among other things, “Closing the identified school and consolidating the students into a higher performing or new school, whether charter or district managed,” and “creating new schools, whether district or charter, to provide students in identified schools with new and better education options....” In short, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told Texas that it can use these federal funds to start new schools, including charters, and close low-performing ones, rather than just work to turn them around. Some had argued that the money couldn’t be used in this way under ESSA. The Education Department didn’t agree, and now any state can follow in Texas’s footsteps.

Florida’s “Schools of Hope” legislation presents another template. Passed in 2017, the law provides incentives for high-quality nonprofit charters to locate within five miles of low-performing schools as Hope Operators. The state board of education approved rules earlier this year requiring that applicants must already have cleared some high bar—either being awarded a replication grant by the federal Department of Education, or by the Charter School Growth Fund, or being chosen by the local district as a turnaround operator.

Decades of turnaround efforts have done little to transform America’s lowest performing schools. Under ESSA, states have the novel opportunity to try a new strategy: charter expansion. These schools have long been a blessing for the country’s most disadvantaged kids, many of whom are trapped in failing district schools because they don’t have access to other options, like charters. States can now change that. And they should. 

This essay was adapted from an article titled “What Are the Options?” written with Nelson Smith in the May 2018 issue of NASBE’s The Standard.

Brandon L. Wright
Brandon L. Wright is the Editorial Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.