The Wild West, The Timid East – How Best to Grow Charter Sectors?

wild west

A new study just came out on Arizona charter schools. You can read it here. This study, plus the recent Texas study, have me thinking a lot about the how to scale charter sectors.

The takeaway from the Arizona study: Arizona charter are generally underperforming traditional schools, though a subset of schools are delivering strong performance.

The takeaway from the Texas study: Texas charters used to perform worse than traditional schools, but as a sector they’ve improved to roughly the same performance as the traditional sector.

My guess is that the thoughtful replication (funders backing the best charters to grow) and regulation (the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools is tightening up on accountability) will likely increase charter performance in Arizona, as occurred in Texas.

All of which begs the question, what’s the best way to scale a high-quality charter sectors?

See below for two potential models (surely there are more) that hopefully illuminate some of the issues.

Option One: Grow, Clean Up, Grow

To some extent, this has been (or will be), the path taken by Arizona, Texas, and Ohio. Each grew their sectors quickly and then, to varying degrees, closed the worst and expanded the best.

The benefit of this approach is based on the fact that market share matters. District incumbents are very political powerful, and small market share sectors will have less political clout. This dynamic means it that can be smart to grow charters as quickly as possible whenever the political window presents itself. Boston stands as a compelling example that high-quality, low market share sectors can be politically dominated.

Of course, the risks here are twofold: (1) a state might open up a bunch of charters and then fail to clean up the sector, so there is little impact on student achievement; and (2) the political blowback from a bunch of low-performing charters might negatively impact both the ability of high-perfroming charters to grow as well as new high-potential operators to launch.

Option 2: Grow a Little, Figure Out What Works, Double Down 

This model calls for higher barriers to entry; less of a need for a lot of performance management (because of higher initial quality); and then further continued growth of the higher performers.

“Smart Caps” are one way in which this model has been legislatively codified. Basically, a state restricts the number of charters, save for those charters that achieve a certain level of performance. The overall cap limits new market entrants, but the “smartness” of the cap allows for unlimited growth of the best operators.

The pro of this model is that in puts fairly tight quality control on both front end and back end authorizing, which should lead to superior performance at the outset.

The cons are twofold: (1) reducing the number of start-ups may artificially reduce the total potential pool of high-performing operators; and (2) the sector may grow very slowly at first, which could result in it being completely shut down by a “non-smart” cap due to its political weakness.

Which Option is Best?

To be honest, I’m not sure. I’d have to spend a lot more time with actual data to see if there’s enough historical information to give us an indication of which option delivers better academic results over the long-haul.

My guess is that the data would not be conclusive. The sample size is probably too limited, both in terms of the size and age of many state charter sectors. I’d be hesitant to draw strong conclusions from charter sectors that are only 10-15 years old.

Splitting the Difference 

One last thought: I wonder if it could be possible to capture the benefits of both approaches while minimizing the downsides of each.

In New Orleans, we grew the charter sector very rapidly – going from 3% market share to 95% market share in a ten year period. Granted, we attracted a lot of philanthropy and talent to the city, but we still grew aggressively, which has resulted in a more than minimal failure rate (I don’t have exact data, but probably somewhere around 10-20%). Yet, throughout this era of rapid growth, charter schools consistently outperformed the traditional sector as a whole.

My guess is that a decent amount of the poor performance in Texas and Arizona could have been avoided by better authorizing, and a greater pool of high-quality applicants could have been drawn to the sector with a coordinated philanthropic and talent strategy.

In other words, the dichotomy between quality and growth may be, to some extent, a false one.

But, again, I’m not completely sure. I’d need to spend more time with the data to come to firmer conclusions.

*Conflict note: I have done paid work the Arizona charter community.

5 thoughts on “The Wild West, The Timid East – How Best to Grow Charter Sectors?

  1. Mike G

    Good post. Agree with much of what you write.

    1. Can I turn your “guess” into a friendly bet?

    My concern is that states like AZ, TX, OH improve enough to create parity with district, but stall. Not any sort of *meaningful* outperform. We know that the “die is cast” on a charter school usually within its first couple years – if it will ultimately help kids make big gains, that shows up fast; if it’s going to lag, same.

    I wonder if that dynamic is similar with whole states.

    So I’d bet the “under” for all 3 states — none emerges with large gains for kids within, say, 5 years. I want to be wrong.

    2. Hasn’t the quality East been sort of cross-subsidizing the lagging West?

    I.e., charters beating the district in NYC, DC, and perhaps Boston helps influence lots of general interest media and policymakers and donors. That helps the West paper over some of its weaknesses. Meanwhile, charter opponents get to tout CREDO USA, which hurts the East’s expansion argument.

    Now if it turns out that Ohio in particular generates political advantage by being large and mediocre (does it?), and that prevents a presidential Dem candidate from going anti-charter, then perhaps that even things out.

    1. nkingsl

      Hey Mike,

      I think you might be right, so no bets from me :)

      I’m going to write a post for tomorrow that fleshes out the best case for the TX, AZ strategy… but I’m far from sold…

      I wouldn’t say East vs West (given NOLA, Memphis,Indy, DC, LA all have positive effect sizes) – but I take your point. It’s probably more urban vs. suburban… but you’re right

      Yes, I think the political question is the interesting one I’m trying to grapple with – I’ve worked in AZ and the politics around chartering are very different, also because of Great Hears and Basis – large market share + schools that serve wealthy folks lead to strong political support…

  2. Mike G

    Yep. So let’s set aside parent choice (I’m a fan), which posits that more parent choice is automatically good.

    Let’s for now only consider a moderate who favors charters if and only if they generate large gains for kids. Because that makes the question harder (and therefore fun-ner).

    In Massachusetts, it’s true that the direct political push (suburban moms) comes from the schools that generate low gains relative to their districts. The Boston schools generate large gains for kids but far less direct political push from parents (although a lot from editorial board, philanthropists, ec).

    I fear a win the battle, lose the war scenario. We should be trying to conceive a political strategy that hits both targets (charter survival without bureaucratic creep, and charter academic excellence) — or is deemed a failure as a political strategy.


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