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Report Madness! A Breakdown of This Week’s Charter School Reading

As a junior education policy explorer, I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, education stuff is complicated. Second, complicated education stuff leads to a whole bunch of reports and studies. Lastly, those reports  and studies tend to come in spurts—a fact that often results in a whole lot of reading for yours truly. Let it never be said that I don’t get enough reading practice! Today, I’m going to outline a couple of recent reports on our good friends in the charter sector.

The first report comes from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In addition to highlighting the explosive growth of charters in many areas, the report details the largest and fastest growing charter communities in the nation by examining districts with over 10,000 students.

Not surprisingly given the city’s education efforts after Katrina, New Orleans remains at the top of the list for its percentage of students enrolled in charter schools (90 percent). Michigan and Ohio also take home prizes for having the most cities with a top-ten spot for charter enrollment share. Some Colorado districts also earn honorable mentions; Weld came in 15th, Brighton in 16th, Colorado Springs D11 in 20th, and DPS in 21st on the list of highest district charter enrollment percentages.

But Colorado’s biggest prize goes to—you guessed it—Douglas County, which placed fifth in the country on the report’s index for growth in charter student numbers. Unfortunately, our northern neighbors may get the credit; the map on page six of the report apparently believes Douglas County is in Wyoming. We should have listened more carefully when the union warned us about Dougco’s northward march!

The second big report comes from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), but this one rates states on the strength of their charter accountability laws and policies. This report’s a little beefier, weighing in at well over 100 pages (!). Fortunately, only some of those pages deal with Colorado. Unfortunately, the report paints a fairly discouraging picture, awarding Colorado only nine of a possible 30 points when it comes to charter accountability laws.

The report recommends that the state get stricter about charter renewal standards, explicitly require district authorizers to use established performance frameworks, and implement a “default closure provision” that would automatically close bad schools. It also suggests that the state take steps to modify the exclusive charter authorizing authority that many districts have.

There may be some merit to the NACSA’s criticisms, but don’t panic. A grain of salt may be in order. A press release from the Center for Education Reform, another organization that really likes to grade stuff, points out that NACSA’s report focuses solely on policy inputs without paying much attention to outputs:

… [O]ne of the most critical ingredients for charter school success is a strong charter school law. However, in analyzing the strength of charter school policies, it’s vital to understand and take into consideration how provisions play out on the ground … NACSA’s suggested standards are heavily focused on inputs and paperwork, and there is no evidence in any one state that adopting NACSA standards have any bearing on student success and ensuring a robust charter sector to meet educational needs.

There’s nothing like a little charter policy drama to spice up the day. But CER is right; outputs really do matter. Inputs are important too, but at the end of the day we’re mostly interested in what actually comes out of the machine when we press that shiny red button. And as I’ve pointed out before, Colorado’s charters seem to be doing just fine when it comes to producing results.

I hope you enjoyed today’s rundown. As always, I encourage interested policy explorers to dig into the reports themselves.