As charter school enrollment increases around the country, issues of access and equity are becoming more pronounced. The question is whether charter schools are serving their share of students with disabilities and other challenges and not pushing out kids with behavioral problems. A new report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) examines the ways charter authorizers are addressing these issues.

The report is a case study of two charter authorizers, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) and Denver Public Schools (DPS). NACSA used interviews with authorizers, charter operators, and city-based education organizations and experts to create a descriptive analysis detailing common struggles and solutions. The report purposefully avoids suggesting “best” solutions, understanding that each community and charter sector has unique circumstances.

The report found that DC PCSB, Washington’s sole charter authorizer, played a critical role in addressing disproportionate expulsion rates and a decentralized enrollment system, requiring separate applications to each charter school. In working through these issues DC PCSB prioritized maintaining charter quality and autonomy. In the case of expulsions, the authorizer, instead of creating mandates, publicized discipline data to encourage charters to change practices. It also provided best-practices training to charter school leaders and worked with DCPS, the city’s traditional public school district, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to create common measures for easier comparisons between district and charter schools. And to get charter operators to agree to a common enrollment system and stem distrust with DCPS, DC PCSB partnered with a New Schools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization, to develop My School DC.

In Denver, DPS tackled issues of student mobility and serving students with severe disabilities through regular meetings between sectors and by incentivizing charter participation with district facilities. DPS created enrollment zones consisting of charter and neighborhood schools to equalize the responsibility of accommodating new students throughout the year, previously only delegated to district schools. To recruit charters to a system that limited enrollment autonomy, DPS provided charters with access to district facilities. To provide more options for students with severe disabilities who require special programs and facilities, DPS provided charters with needed funding to accommodate disabled students. It also engaged charter experimentation by launching an inclusive schools initiative aimed at finding innovative ways to support students with severe disabilities in Denver. In both cases, DPS was aided by the ongoing dialogue between representatives of the district and charter sectors in the District-Charter Collaborative Council, which meets monthly to address common concerns.

Based on these two case studies, the report provides recommendations for other authorizers facing similar challenges of access and equity. They emphasize the importance of building strong relationships between sectors, using third parties to lead initiatives that require cooperation between district and charter schools, and leveraging access to district funds and facilities. They are also clear about the importance of trade-offs and compromises. In both cases, authorizers gave up autonomy in enrollment but maintained other freedoms. The authors note that all cities have unique circumstances and authorizers should avoid assuming the exact strategies used by DC PCBS and DPS are the best strategies for all cities.

Although charter authorizers are traditionally involved in monitoring enrollment and equity practices, this report advocates for a more proactive role for authorizers. Working to achieve enrollment practices that maximize student access is critical to charter schools’ mission of providing quality options. Charter authorizers now have some quality guidance on how to take the lead on these issues.

SOURCE: Daniela Doyle, Juli Kim, and M. Karega Rausch, Ph.D., “Beyond The Fringe: Charter Authorizing As Enrollment Grows,” National Association Of Charter School Authorizers (November 2017).

Nicholas Munyan-Penney was a development and research associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (2018–19), who had been currently pursuing a master’s degree in education policy at The George Washington University. He has a MAT in secondary english education from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and a bachelor's degree in English from Emerson College. While at SNHU, Nicholas researched integration…

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