Why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others fall behind

Jed Wallace, Elizabeth Robitaille

Here follows the fourth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) has been issuing annual research on the academic performance of the California charter sector for several years. California is unique in the sheer size and diversity of the charter movement—the number and range of charter schools in California far exceeds that of any other state. Historically, we have found that charter schools both tend to overperform and underperform relative to non-charter public schools, providing a “U-Shape” spectrum of performance. At the same time, we see that different categories of charter schools are found in different concentrations on the performance spectrum, with some categories tending to overperform and other categories tending to underperform. These same trends are likely present in other states as well, but the numbers of charter schools in those states are not yet sizable enough to yield the clear findings we see here. California can therefore serve as a useful microcosm for understanding the differences in academic performance of the charter movement across the nation.

One clear finding we identify is that a high concentration of nonprofit, mission-driven charter organizations serving historically disadvantaged students consistently yields strong results. In Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland, we have large numbers of charter schools (educating 20 percent or more of the total student population) that fit these characteristics. These charter schools serve large numbers of socioeconomically disadvantaged, African American, Latino, and English-learner students and are far outperforming non-charter schools. CCSA and other research groups have issued reports documenting compelling student outcomes, particularly in terms of added days of student learning and college matriculation. These trends parallel the kind of strong, successful outcomes occurring in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, New York City, Boston, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

Based on California trends, we believe a key ingredient in the recipe for charter success has been the role of strategic, results-oriented philanthropy. Where we see a groundswell of support from funders to back a wide array of high-performing charter schools, the movement grows and flourishes. In Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Jose, we have seen that sustained startup support for quality schools—both for large charter-management organizations (CMOs) and for smaller players—has resulted in the emergence of strong fields of operators ready to take on even more rapid expansion. Cumulatively, across the state, strategic philanthropy has contributed to a healthy selection bias within the sector, where the strongest organizations are most contributing to growth. In California, we now have forty-four high-performing CMOs, and we also have many successful one- and two-school operators that are growing. These replicating organizations now account for approximately two-thirds of the growth that is happening in the state, and trends suggest that replications will account for an even higher share of growth in the future.

Meanwhile, assertive accountability efforts—some of them coming from CCSA itself—are encouraging the closure of underperforming schools in California. Over the past five years, 143 charter schools have closed in California, and those schools have been overwhelmingly on the left (underperforming) side of the U. 

Taken together, strategic philanthropy enabling quality growth and assertive accountability efforts closing poor performers are contributing to a rapid improvement in the overall charter school sector. CREDO’s recently released California report confirmed that charter school performance in California improved quite rapidly between 2008 and 2011, and our own research finds that improvement has accelerated in 2012 and 2013.

Other trends within California also correspond with national trends. We see for example, as has been the case in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere, that California’s non-classroom-based charter schools do not perform as well as other charter schools. Interestingly, however, we have seen that non-classroom-based schools’ performance has improved significantly over the past five years, suggesting that the same dynamics improving overall performance are at play within the non-classroom-based segment, as well.

As to the performance of for-profit charter schools, CCSA does not have as much insight to offer as others, because the California sector has only a small number of for-profits. With that said, we do find it worth noting that the regions of strongest charter school performance in California and across the nation are heavily populated with nonprofit charter schools. And it seems natural to conclude that in the absence of strategic philanthropy enabling the growth of high-performing nonprofit charter schools, for-profits, regardless of program quality, will be the one segment in the sector with the resources needed to grow. As such, if others want to ensure the creation of a healthy selection bias toward quality growth like we see emerging in California, we would encourage as much strategic, results-oriented philanthropy invested in mission-driven nonprofits as possible.

Finally, regarding the other factors that could possibly affect charter school quality—caps, quality authorizers, good state laws, access to human capital, etc.—we would report that the best focus is on ensuring the creation of a healthy charter school environment: a good state law providing the base conditions needed for growth and the presence of Teach For America and New Leaders For New Schools, who provide the raw talent that charter schools need to fuel growth. After that, we find little else that seems to affect charter quality. We see no correlation between authorizing practices and charter school quality. In fact, we think it fair to say that charter schools are succeeding in California in spite of authorizer behavior, not because of it. We can’t see how charter school caps would have played a constructive role in the development of California’s sector, and we are in general highly skeptical that authorizers, or anyone for that matter, do a good job of discerning quality applicants from weaker ones. Without an authorizing landscape that defaults to school opening with multiple opportunities for appeal, as is the case in California, we think the Aspires, Green Dots, and the Summits of the world may never have gotten off the ground.

Viewed from its broadest perspective, we believe the emerging alignment between trends occurring at a national level and in California bodes well for the future of our movement. Is charter school performance across our movement as strong as we would like it to be? No. But do things seem to be moving very encouragingly in the right direction? Absolutely. The emerging national consensus, confirmed by our experience in California, is that the right levers are strategic philanthropic investments enabling nonprofit growth, assertive accountability efforts ensuring closure of underperformers, and relentless advocacy for the creation of a good general policy environment and access to human capital. If those elements are more aggressively pursued in charter sectors across our nation, we see no reason to believe that the encouraging trends emerging in California won’t soon be experienced by a growing number of states across the nation.

Jed Wallace is the president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, and Elizabeth Robitaille is the senior vice president of achievement and performance management and school development support for the California Charter Schools Association.