Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing

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It’s well established that some charter schools do far better than others at educating their students. This variability has profound implications for the children who attend those schools. Yet painful experience shows that rebooting or closing a low-performing school is a drawn-out and excruciating process.

But what if we could predict which schools are likely not to succeed—before they’ve even opened their doors? Doing so would mean that authorizers could select stronger schools to open, thereby protecting children and ultimately leading to a higher-performing charter sector overall.

In Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing, analysts Anna Nicotera and David Stuit investigated that very question, examining more than six hundred charter school applications across four states. They found three “risk factors” in approved applications that were significant predictors of a school’s future weak performance in its first years of operation:

  1. Lack of identified leadership: Charter applications that propose a self-managed school without naming a school leader.
  2. High risk, low dose: Charter applications that propose to serve at-risk pupils but plan to employ “low dose” academic programs that do not include sufficient academic supports, such as intensive small-group instruction or extensive individual tutoring.
  3. A child-centered curriculum: Charter applications that propose to deploy child-centered, inquiry-based pedagogies, such as Montessori, Waldorf, Paideia, or experiential programs.

Further, when an application displayed two or more of these risk factors, the likelihood of low performance rose to 80 percent.

The study also found that the following indicators, among others, made it more likely that an application would be rejected entirely:

  • A lack of evidence that the school will start with a sound financial foundation;
  • No description of how the school will use data to evaluate educators or inform instruction;
  • No discussion of how the school will create and sustain a culture of high expectations; and
  • No plans to hire a management organization to run the school.

The appearance of these risk and rejection factors should lead to considerably deeper inquiry, heightened due diligence, and perhaps a requirement for additional information. These results are meant to enhance an authorizer’s existing review procedures—not to discourage innovation and experimentation within the charter realm going forward.

Deciding whether to give the green light to a new charter school is a weighty decision. This report gives authorizers, operators, and advocates one more tool in their toolkit.


April 19, 2017
Foreword & Summary


Charter Schools at the Crossroads

Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities

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Over the past quarter-century, charter schools have gone from an upstart education experiment to a prominent, promising, and disruptive innovation in K–12 education. Indeed, few observers present at the creation of the first charter schools could have predicted how rapidly this movement would spread or how thoroughly it would come to dominate the education-reform agenda. In Charter Schools at the Crossroads, authors Chester E. Finn, Jr., Bruno V. Manno, and Brandon L. Wright take stock of what chartering has (and hasn’t) accomplished thus far, how to address its present challenges, and what an ambitious and boldly different course for the next twenty-five years would look like. 

From the role of philanthropy to the rise of no-excuses charter schools, they frankly examine the positive and negative consequences of policies and programs, and push sector leaders to do more, do better, and do it differently. They counter the often-oversimplified narrative of the movement’s origins, showing how multiple agendas and intentions led to a cacophony of results. And they address chartering’s many current dilemmas, including the roles of authorizers and operators, challenges in facilities and funding, and the balance between freedom and regulation. Informative and provocative, this book shows the tremendous work accomplished by the charter sector thus far—and how much still remains to be done.

Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities is published by Harvard Education Press and is available for purchase on its website or Amazon.

Timeline of Charter School History

Scroll left and right through significant events.

Charter School Boards in the Nation's Capital

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Tens of thousands of individuals across the United States volunteer their time, energy, and expertise as members of charter school boards. Yet as the charter sector has grown, we’ve learned remarkably little about these individuals who make key operational decisions about their schools and have legal and moral responsibilities for the education of children in their communities.

Fordham’s latest study, Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital, is one of the first attempts to use quantitative survey data to explore the relationship between charter boards and school quality. Authors Juliet Squire and Allison Crean Davis of Bellwether Education Partners queried charter school board members in Washington, D.C.—a city with one of the highest percentage of public charter school students in the nation—to determine (a) who serves on District charter boards and (b) which board practices are associated with school quality.

Key findings include:

  • Charter school board members in D.C. tend to be affluent, highly educated individuals with liberal or moderate political leanings. Three-quarters of them have served fewer than four years on their board. A slight majority is white, and one-third are African American. They are fairly evenly distributed by age and have a wide range of occupational backgrounds, although almost one-third work in education.
  • Board members of high-quality charters are more knowledgeable about their schools. These board members are more likely to know their school's quality rating from the DC Public Charter School Board, can more accurately estimate the percentage of their school’s population that is eligible for free or reduced priced lunches, and are more knowledgeable about school finances.
  • Board members of high-quality schools are more likely to participate in training, engage in strategic planning, and meet monthly. In particular, board members at high-performing schools are more likely to have received training in developing the school budget, strategic planning, and legal and policy issues.
  • Board members of high-quality schools are significantly more likely to evaluate their school leaders and use staff satisfaction as a factor in such evaluations.
  • Regardless of school quality, charter school board members have much in common, including beliefs about the importance of academic achievement, similar school finance practices, and understanding their role and responsibilities.

While focused on charter board members in Washington D.C., the report nonetheless offers valuable insights for charter advocates in other cities. By recruiting informed and dedicated volunteers to lend their time to these boards—and nudging them to implement sound practices—they may be able to replicate some of the successes of one of America’s most robust charter sectors.


September 29, 2016
Foreword & Executive Summary


In the Media

October 12, 2016
Nonprofit Quarterly
November 17, 2016
The Detroit News

Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools

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This Fordham study, conducted by learning technology researcher June Ahn from NYU, dives into one of the most promising—and contentious—issues in education today: virtual schools. What type of students choose them? Which online courses do students take? Do virtual schools lead to improved outcomes for kids?
With over thirty-five thousand students enrolled in its fully online charter schools (“e-schools”), Ohio boasts one of the country’s largest populations of full-time virtual students. The sector has also grown tremendously, with a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years—more than any other type of public school. Using four years of comprehensive student-level data to examine Ohio’s e-schools, the study finds: 
  • E-school students are mostly similar in race and ethnicity to students in brick-and-mortar district schools. But e-school students are lower-achieving (and more likely to have repeated the prior grade), more likely to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to participate in gifted education.
  • Students taking online math courses are more likely to enroll in basic classes relative to students taking face-to-face courses. Almost no students take advanced math courses (like AP Statistics, Calculus, or Algebra II) online, especially compared to students who take face-to-face classes.
  • Across all grades and subjects, students who attend e-schools perform worse on state tests than otherwise-similar students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools, even accounting for prior achievement. In contrast, students in grades 4–8 who attend brick-and-mortar charter schools perform slightly better than their district school counterparts in both reading and math. Results are mixed but modest for students in grade ten.
  • Findings also suggest that e-schools drag down the performance of the entire charter sector.
Online schools offer an efficient way to diversify—and even democratize—education in a connected world. Yet they have received negative, but well-deserved, attention concerning their poor academic performance, attrition rates, and ill capacity to educate the types of students who enroll in them. This is especially true in Ohio, where virtual schools have failed (as yet) to realize their potential.
Using a slightly different analytical approach than CREDO’s Online Charter School Study (2015), Dr. Ahn’s results corroborate the disappointing findings on Ohio’s online schools. Bold changes in policy and practice are needed to ensure that these schools better serve their students. For advocates of online learning and educational choice, the work has just begun.


August 02, 2016
Information Graphic - Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools
August 02, 2016
Foreword and Executive Summary
August 02, 2016
Conclusion and Takeaways


Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition, and Performance Effects

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Shortly after Ohio lawmakers enacted a new voucher program in 2005, the state budget office wrote in its fiscal analysis, “The Educational Choice Scholarships are not only intended to offer another route for student success, but also to impel the administration and teaching staff of a failing school building to improve upon their students’ academic performance.” Today, the EdChoice Scholarship Program provides publicly funded vouchers to more than eighteen thousand Buckeye students who were previously assigned to some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, located primarily in low-income urban communities. Yet remarkably little else is known about the program.

Which children are using EdChoice when given the opportunity? Is the initiative faithfully working as its founders intended? Are participating students blossoming academically in their private schools of choice? Does the increased competition associated with EdChoice lead to improvements in the public schools that these kids left?

Fordham’s new study utilizes longitudinal student data from 2003–04 to 2012–13 to answer these and other important questions. 

Three key findings:

  • Student selection: The students participating in EdChoice are overwhelmingly low-income and minority children. But relative to pupils who are eligible for vouchers but choose not to use them, the participants in EdChoice are somewhat higher-achieving and less economically disadvantaged.
  • Competitive effects: EdChoice modestly improved the achievement of the public-school students who were eligible for a voucher but did not use it. The competition associated with the introduction of EdChoice appears to have spurred these public-school improvements.
  • Participant effects: The students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse on state exams compared to their closely matched peers remaining in public schools. Only voucher students assigned to relatively high-performing EdChoice eligible public schools could be credibly studied.

Dr. David Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University, led the research.

In the Media

July 07, 2016
Ohio’s voucher students fare worse than public-school peers, study finds
July 07, 2016
Ohio Study Latest to Show Poor Voucher Results: 7 Theories Dissect The Trend
July 07, 2016
Ohio Vouchers Have Mixed Impact on Student Performance, Study Finds

Pathway to Success: DECA prepares students for rigors of college, realities of life

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Too much of what we hear about urban public schools in America is disheartening. A student’s zip code—whether she comes from poverty or economic privilege—often predicts her likelihood of educational (and later-life) success. Motivated by this unacceptable reality, some schools have worked relentlessly against the odds to deliver excellent educational opportunities to students no matter their background. The Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) is an island of excellence in one of Ohio’s poorest and most academically challenged districts. The unique opportunities and supports it provides to students—both academic and personal—are showcased briefly through the story of Khadidja, an inspiring young woman whose experience at DECA has helped forge a very different future than the one facing many of her urban peers.

Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?

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Fordham’s latest study, by the University of Connecticut's Shaun M. Dougherty, uses data from Arkansas to explore whether students benefit from CTE coursework—and, more specifically, from focused sequences of CTE courses aligned to certain industries. The study also describes the current landscape, including which students are taking CTE courses, how many courses they’re taking, and which ones.

Key findings include: 

  • Students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages.
  • CTE is not a path away from college: Students taking more CTE classes are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers.
  • Students who focus their CTE coursework are more likely to graduate high school by twenty-one percentage points compared to otherwise similar students (and they see a positive impact on other outcomes as well).
  • CTE provides the greatest boost to the kids who need it most—boys, and students from low-income families.

Due to many decades of neglect and stigma against old-school “vo-tech,” high-quality CTE is not a meaningful part of the high school experience of millions of American students. It’s time to change that.


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2015 Fordham Sponsorship Annual Report

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The 2015 Fordham Sponsorship Annual Report is our opportunity to share the Fordham Foundation’s work as the sponsor of eleven schools serving approximately 3,200 students in five cities, and our related policy work in Ohio and nationally.

Charter school policy took a giant leap forward in Ohio in 2015 with the passage of HB 2. The road to a high-quality charter school sector has been laid out. If we want high-performing schools and networks to grow and replicate in the state, it is time to turn our attention to the human capital, facilities, and funding issues that have dogged the sector here for far too long.

We urge you to read this report to learn of Fordham’s commitment to quality schools for all children. 

America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice

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More than twelve million American students exercise some form of school choice by going to a charter, magnet, or private schoolor opting for homeschoolinginstead of attending a traditional public school. Countless others use district-wide lotteries, attendance waivers, or interdistrict transfers to attend public schools other than the ones in their neighborhoods. But some cities are significantly more “choice-friendly” than others…and some are downright hostile.

Using nearly fifty markers of “choice friendliness,” this report shows which of thirty American cities are the best and worst for school choice.

What makes a city choice-friendly? We examined three factors:


This area measures the views of various important individuals and groups when it comes to school choice. How supportive are the city council, mayor, superintendent, and governor? How about the teachers' union, parent groups, and the local media?


It’s nearly impossible for choice to flourish without supportive policies and practices for both providers and parents. This area includes topics like whether charter schools have adequate funding and access to district facilities, as well as the ease with which parents can learn about, and apply to, schools of choice.

Third, the QUANTITY AND QUALITY of choices:

How many choices exist for students—and if they are any good—obviously matters a great deal. This area includes factors like whether students are allowed to attend schools in nearby districts. And if so, can the district choose to say no by opting out? What percentage of public schools in the city are schools of choice? And what is the quality of charter schools relative to their district counterparts?

As you’ll read, some cities’ overall rankings come as no surprise—the gold, silver, and bronze go to choice hot-spots: New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Denver. But New York City, a roaring engine of choice under Mayor Bloomberg, is now sputtering and fails to crack the top ten (blame the “de Blasio effect”). And how did Atlanta—marred by a cheating scandal—end up surprising us in the ninth position?

There's lots more to learn in this most comprehensive look at urban school choice to date. You can download the full report here or dive into the state profiles on their own.

Is Detente Possible? District-charter school relations in four cities

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Whether you think the end game of the current “mixed economy” of district and charter schools should be an all-charter system (as in New Orleans) or a dual model (as in Washington D.C.), for the foreseeable future most cities are likely to continue with a blend of these two sectors. So we wanted to know: Can they peacefully co-exist? Can they do better than that? Can they actually collaborate in the service of students, families and the public interest?

We teamed up with Public Impact to address these very questions, in the context of five cities that have among the best conditions for district-charter collaboration: Boston, Cleveland, Denver, the District of Columbia and Houston.*

As we examined these evolving relationships, we found markedly different forms of engagement reminiscent of how international relations often play out. From Washington, D.C.’s “superpower summit” through Boston’s “protectionism under pressure,” the shifting district-charter interplay highlighted in this report may begin to point the way to a new world order in public education.

Download the full report, foreword and executive summary, individual city profiles, and recommendations to learn more:



* Houston is a lesson in “Isolationism” as each sector mostly pursues its own course with minimal contact between them (so much so that we omitted it from full discussion in the report).


If you have questions about the book, please email David Griffith.