The Great Charter School Clean Up?


Florida, Arizona, and Texas are known for having large charter school markets with large variation in quality.

Taking the first letter from each state name, let’s call these the FAT states.

All told, charter sectors in FAT states serve about 750,000 students (AZ = 180,000,FL = 280,000, TX = 280,000) – or about 25% of all charter students in the country.

Results in the FAT states have been mixed.

Here is what CREDO found in 2015 when they studied Texas charter school data:

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Even in urban areas, where charters usually perform the best, Texas charters lag compared to their traditional peers.

Previous CREDO studies in Arizona and Florida have found negative to mediocre results; however, more recent studies, especially those focusing on attainment, have found more positive results.

But, in terms of matched test results, the FAT states tend to poorly when compared to the charter sectors of Louisiana, Colorado, and Massachusetts.


The FAT states split the reform community.

For many of those whose posts show up on Jay Green’s blog, the FAT states are exactly what we need: high levels of entrepreneurship, disruption, and parent choice.

For many of those whose posts show up on CRPE’s blog, the FAT states have serious shortcomings: they represent the triumph of free market mania over the pragmatic restraints of quality control.


But something interesting is happening in the FAT states.

They are closing a lot of charter schools.

Last year, Florida closed 35 charter schools; Arizona closed 30 charters schools; and Texas closed 62 charter schools.

In Florida, regulators closed ~5% of all charter schools in a single year.

In Arizona, regulators closed ~6% of all charter schools in a single year. 

In Texas, regulators closed ~8% of all charter schools in a single year.

These rates are higher than the national charter school closure rates of ~4%.

In the case of Texas, their closure rate was double the national average.


We will learn much from the behavior of the FAT states (the next great charter paper must be lurking in this data).

Here are questions for which I would love to know the answer:

  1. How do the schools that are being closed compare to district schools peers in terms of academic growth, post-secondary attainment, earnings, and parent and student satisfaction?
  2. Over a long-period (25 years?) is it better for a state to let a thousand flowers bloom and then clean up the sector or to put on tight quality controls at the outset and then  allow for measured replication? Or somewhere in-between?
  3. How does the size of a charter sector affect its political support in the state legislature?
  4. How does the quality of a charter sector affect its political support in the state legislature?
  5. How does support in the state legislature affect quality control measures?

I’m sure there is more to be mined from the behavior of the FAT states.

4 thoughts on “The Great Charter School Clean Up?

  1. Christi Martin

    The large number of poor to very poor charters in Texas resulted from the State Board of Education’s 2 Very Bad Days in 1998 and 1999. To the horror of Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff and charter policy advocates, the board decided to grant a charter to almost every applicant. As I recall, in the “3rd Generation” of applicants (split bw two rounds in 1998-99), staff recommended 12 of around 120 applications for approval. (I was the TEA attorney assigned to work with charter staff at the time.) The board granted 109.

    Most of these charters performed demonstrably worse than traditional neighborhood schools. Thousands of students have been poorly served and the charter narrative has been dominated by these schools for 17 of our 20 year history with charters.

    Not surprisingly, the potential for real innovation was snuffed out early on as TEA responded to each charter scandal with layers of regulation designed not only to prevent a repeat of the precise offenses uncovered, but any permutation thereof, lest the legislature and media call for heads the next time.

    As a consequence, Texas has a reputation as (and really is) unfriendly to new charter entrants. TEA staff responded rationally to the mess they were handed and the norms are now deeply embedded. I honestly don’t think even our new, reformy commissioner can turnaround the charter function at the agency.

    The bright spot is that three-strikes legislation adopted in 2013 enabled TEA to put the worst schools on a conveyor belt to closure. To its credit, the Texas Association of Charter Schools supported the 2013 legislation and has publicly supported the many closures over the past few years.

    Still, though, there remain many marginal schools adept at the accountability bob and weave.
    Four partial solutions come to mind. The first two relate to the ethical obligation and pragmatic motives we charter advocates have to shine a light on, and draw students away from, low-performing charters.

    #1. We should encourage high-performers to pressure charter brethren (not just district schools) to improve or close by locating near them.

    #2. Funders of choice should compensate for the current lack of infrastructure (clear and readily accessible school performance information, transportation, common enrollment) by proactively helping families move from low-performing charters to better options. (Waitlist outreach is helpful, but insufficient.)

    #3. Move the state charter authorizing function out of TEA. Perhaps the commissioner should retain ultimate approval authority, but the application development and vetting and should happen in a new environment.

    #4. Launch a challenge competition focused on ideas for new education delivery channels. Charters and vouchers (even with their variety of type) are two dots on a continuum. Surely we can devise additional ways, less burdened with preconceptions, to enable innovation in education. And here I don’t mean inviting ideas for new modes of instruction, assessment, etc., but rather new ideas for legal structures by which public resources can catalyze proliferation of new education services.

  2. Travis Pillow (@travispillow)

    Hey Neerav, while it’s definitely getting harder to open a charter school in Florida, and that means fewer terrible charters are getting through, unfortunately I think the majority of charter school closures in Florida over the past year were mid-year disasters (like this: rather than orderly, regulatory closures. So the cleanup remains a work in progress.

  3. Pingback: The Net New Charter School Growth Rate Just Plummeted to a Decade Low | relinquishment

  4. matthewladner

    Here in the cactus patch the State Board has been nudging some older schools out of existence, but the average closed school is only lasting 4 years on average and has an average of 62 students enrolled in the final year of operation. AZ grants 15 year charters, so the sector has entered a good place where parents simply either never enroll in, or else withdraw their children from attending schools undesirable schools. Charter, magnet, district open enrollment and to a lesser degree policy cost assisted private options are available, so life is too short to put up with a meh choice school. AZ charters crushed all six 2015 NAEP exams and the state’s PARCC results, so we are very happy.


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