The Net New Charter School Growth Rate Just Plummeted to a Decade Low

I just spent some time with charter school growth numbers from 2005 to 2015.

I think these numbers are right but please do correct me if they are wrong.

I tried to look at a few data sources, and not all of them agreed, though they were roughly aligned so I feel like the below is a reasonable estimate of new school creation by year.

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From 2005 to 2013, net new charter schools great at a healthy ~7% a year.

And then in the past two years the net new school growth rate has plummeted, as has the absolute number of new schools created.

In 2015, there were only 132 net new school created compared to 310 in 2006. 

Some Reflections

1. If, like me, you believe that high-quality charter schools will be a major source of increased educational opportunity, this data is probably not good news.

2. There is some chance that this most recent data is reflecting a Great Cleanup. In this last year, 272 charter schools were closed, which drove down the net new school creation (404 schools opened, which is lower than one would hope, but not catastrophically low by historical standards).

3. Interestingly enough, charter school enrollment still grew by 9% this year. This could be the result of charter schools that opened in previous years growing to full enrollment (this often takes 3-4 years); new schools are being opened in ways that aren’t showing up in the data (a middle school adds a high school under the same charter); or virtual schools distorting the school to enrollment ratio (by enrolling thousands of students). Or something else I’m not thinking of.

4. All these closures + lower rates of new school creation could just mean that the sector is taking quality much more seriously. Perhaps the result of the Great Cleanup will be that the next CREDO national study will show better results.

5. My biggest worry is that this data reflects a slowdown in entrepreneurship; that some combination of politics, regulation, national mood, vision, etc. is causing great educators to not take the jump to open an awesome school.

6. I feel a little lonely in digging through this data! When labor data is announced, you have 10,000 economists and pundits analyzing the numbers. I feel like there’s about five of us in the country who do this with charter data. Of course, I don’t expect the amount of analysis to rival national economic data, but it feels like that for a sector of this maturity there is not a ton of data analysis. And, yes, I’m now in a position to fund others to increase this capacity, so if this doesn’t get fixed I’ll share some of the blame.

Let me know if any of this data is off and I will correct it.


9 thoughts on “The Net New Charter School Growth Rate Just Plummeted to a Decade Low

  1. Nicole Dorn

    It could also be related to more organizations like UP Education Network, where I work, not opening up charters as would be defined here but turnaround schools that are still part of the traditional district. These schools would not be captured in this data, but do share many of the same autonomies or characteristics of many of the MA charters counted here. There are probably not enough turnaround schools to change the numbers that much, but in the future it might be useful to study the number of turnaround schools at the same time as we look at the number of charters.

  2. John

    I think it is a bit of a retrenchment as you say. Also, I think the economic downturn may have caused some plans to be delayed. Enrollment is up and quality should be up. I think number of schools will tick up again next year.

  3. Joe Connor

    I agree with John about retrenchment, but I think it’s a combination of political retrenchment in certain key markets and certain key markets reaching “peak charter”. In terms of political retrenchment, there are certain markets where the charter school sector has hit a brick wall in terms of growth. Two easy examples of political retrenchment are Boston (because of the cap) and NY (because of political opposition). As you pointed out in a previous blog post, NY only opened a measly 12 new charter schools this year. The other trend is peak charter. Peak charter is when a city doesn’t hit a statutory cap like in Boston, but hits the highest percentage of charter schools that politics will allow or the education structure can permit. Washington DC is a good example of this. This year Washington DC opened 4 new charter schools, but closed 5, resulting in a net gain of -1 charter schools. The last two years, the enrollment share of charters in DC has stayed mainly flat (according to the two most recent reports by the NAPCS), 43% – 2014 and 44% in 2015. Charter schools in DC are not as controversial as they are in other markets, and it appears that this no growth/slow growth era might just be an acceptance of the status quo on everyone’s part. Or perhaps an inability of DC’s CMOs (KIPP DC, DC Prep) to grow any larger? It seems like whatever the reason is, there are now a few mature charter markets where growth is slow to non existent and might continue to stay that way.

  4. John Danner

    I also think there is a pendulum between external reforms like charters and internal district reforms. There seems to be a lot of energy both by districts and philanthropists directed at technology and personalization now. We have been surprised at Zeal how interested districts have been in blended tutoring. Our game plan was to focus on charters but many districts are now more aggressive early adopters of new tech like ours. The charter movement has definitely created more urgency for innovation, which is a very good thing.

  5. Beth Rabbitt (@BethRabbitt)

    Interesting, thanks for doing the crunching. I wonder how much the slow down might be related to talent pipeline issues. You need great, competent leaders to open quality schools, and I’ve been wondering if we can sustain the pace of growth of schools without more seriously investing in building the second and third level benches of great CMOs. Ed Cities published a paper last year advocating for a leadership talent policy focused on poaching the best leaders from great schools. (Yes, they used that term. And, as far as it goes as a policy, it’s a poor one when you look at the data on leadership turnover.) You don’t get a suggestion like that when you have a really robust leadership market and development pool. I’d love to hear your take on this!


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