Growing quality charter schools requires strong charter school authorizers. That’s a key takeaway from Stanford University’s CREDO study, Charter School Growth and Replication, released yesterday. To assess charter school quality in 23 states (including Ohio) and the District of Columbia, CREDO examined over 2 million charter student records from 2005-06 to 2009-10.

A charter school authorizer, of which Fordham is one, has four primary responsibilities: (1) review charter applications, (2) contract with the charter school, (3) ensure compliance, and (4) renew or not renew the charter school’s contract based on school performance, especially academic performance. In each area of responsibility, except compliance, CREDO’s findings suggest that charter school authorizers must strengthen its practices to ensure a growing supply of high-quality charters. Three of CREDO’s findings, in particular, have relevance to charter authorizer practices.

First, CREDO found significant variation in the quality of charter school management networks, or CMOs (e.g., KIPP). Authorizers must be persnickety in the educational organizations with whom they contract—there are sour lemons as well as delicious apples in the CMO barrel. CREDO’s analysis discovered that the finest CMO networks (e.g. KIPP and Uncommon Schools) have large positive effects on students’ learning growth, while the lowest performing networks (e.g. White Hat and Responsive Education Solutions) have far less favorable effects on student learning.[1] They also noted that charters that were supported by the Charter School Growth Fund “had significantly higher learning gains than other CMOs or independent charters.”

Second, CREDO found that a fast start is critical for charter schools. If a charter performs well from the start, it’ll likely continue to perform well five years later. Conversely, if a charter performs poorly from the start, it will likely struggle to turn around its performance. In other words, charters typically don’t get better with age, though, CREDO makes a few caveats on this point.[2] Authorizers, then, must insist on high (though reasonable) academic performance from the get-go, while carefully monitoring performance during a charter’s first few years. As CREDO writes: “In all cases, we argue without exception that poor first year performance simply cannot be overlooked or excused.”

Third, CREDO found that quality begets quality (and vice-versa). When CREDO examined charter replications, the quality of the replicated school was typically the same quality as the flagship school. In addition, CREDO found that, when a charter replicates, the flagship school’s quality doesn’t suffer. Charter school authorizers, then, must encourage, support, and approve the replication efforts of high-quality charter schools and networks of charters. 

CREDO’s findings add to the evidence that strong authorizers can and must lead the charge toward quality. Authorizers can do this by rejecting applications from poor-performing charter management organizations, insisting on academic excellence from the start, and encouraging the replication of high-performing charters. These bold and strong steps on the part of authorizers will create more and better charter schools, in Ohio and across the nation.

[1] CREDO ranked over 100 CMOs, of varying size, by the impact they’ve had on students’ academic performance, and examined in depth four “super-networks” of charter schools (KIPP, Responsive Ed, Uncommon, and White Hat).

[2] We’ve seen exceptions in practice too. For example, Citizens Academy, the top-performing charter in Ohio, was rated “Academic Emergency” (F) in 2003, but in 2012 was rated “Excellent with Distinction” (A+).

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