Solution of the Week: Charter schools

Geoffrey Lawrence

Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools under the direction of an autonomous board. As a result, charter schools compete with traditional public schools run by school districts to attract students, creating choice and accountability within the public school system.

Minnesota achieved widespread success after becoming the first state to experiment with charter schools in 1991. Since then 42 states have passed laws allowing charter schools. Nevada passed its first charter-school law in 1997, although that law limited the number of charter schools statewide to 21 and forced them to first obtain support of the competing public school boards.[1]

Over time, Nevada lawmakers have gradually liberalized the state’s charter-school laws. The statewide cap was relaxed and then removed, and landmark legislation in 2011 created the State Public Charter School Authority to sponsor new charter schools. In 2013, lawmakers created a comprehensive performance framework that charter schools would be responsible for meeting to remain in operation and also gave charter schools bonding authority to meet capital needs.[2]

Key Points

Charter schools encourage innovation. The very concept of charter schools is that, by operating free of strict district-level policies, these schools can experiment with better approaches to education. Indeed, research shows that charter schools are over five times more likely to offer innovative merit-pay incentives.[3] Charters are also more likely to hire alternatively certified teachers.[4]

Charter schools serve more at-risk students. A national report on charter schools commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education shows that charter schools attract higher concentrations of low-income, minority and low-performing students than traditional public schools and that these populations generally perform well in a charter environment.[5]

Empirical evidence shows charter schools elevate student performance. Random assignment studies in Boston, New York and Chicago have all shown that students who won lotteries to attend charter schools performed significantly better than students who did not win these lotteries.[6] In Chicago, for instance, lottery-winning students performed about five percentile points higher in both reading and math.[7]

Recommendations

Establish a “Recovery School District.” Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize failure factories. If a district-run school cannot meet the educational needs of Nevada families, then it should close and have its staff reorganized and potentially converted into a charter school. Lawmakers can model this change after Louisiana’s Recovery School District — a special statewide school district that helps failing schools transition into successful charter schools.

Create a “parent trigger.” California State Sen. Gloria Romero authored the nation’s first “parent trigger” law in 2010 that allows parents to transform failing traditional schools into charter schools if a majority of them sign a petition demanding such changes. While less systematic than the “Recovery School District,” the parent trigger has been replicated in at least seven states. Nevada lawmakers heard three separate proposals to enact a parent trigger in 2013.

Create a charter school incubator. In Arizona, Louisiana, Minnesota and Tennessee, charter school incubators have been instrumental in developing the talent to lead successful new charter schools and helping get these schools off the ground with funding and technical support.[8]

Allow charter contracts to cover multiple branches. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a key improvement in Nevada’s law would allow a single contract to cover multiple branches of a charter school.


[1] Geoffrey Lawrence, “33 Ways to Improve Nevada Education Without Spending More,” NPRI policy study, July 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Julie Kowal et al., “Teacher Compensation in Charter and Private Schools,” Center for American Progress, 2007.

[4] U.S. Dept. of Education, “Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program, Final Report,” 2004.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lawrence, note 1.

[7] Caroline Hoxby and Jonah Rockoff, “Findings from the City of Big Shoulders,” Education Next, 2005.

[8] CEE-Trust, “Charter School Incubation,” 2011.