Running a charter school involves more than an independent leader and an alternative learning atmosphere for students—charter quality is supported by several layers of oversight and supervision, even before schools open their doors. The application and approval process, or the “charter school pipeline,” is facilitated by state and local authorizers, who review the goals and strategies of each new proposed school and regularly check in on the progress of existing schools. To better understand the environment authorizers face, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) recently conducted a study of thousands of recent charter school applications, examining those that were approved and those that weren’t.

Researchers collected nearly 3,000 charter school applications from authorizers and state departments of education in twenty states over a five-year period (fall 2013–spring 2018), a number which includes appeals and reapplications from operators whose proposals were initially denied. While the sample does not include every charter application, the participating authorizers oversee 81 percent of all existing charter schools in these states. They then coded each application across 180 different variables, including school type, features, applicant characteristics, and more.

Their findings highlight the diversity in charter school models both within states and between states. Across nineteen different school models, ranging from military to international to special education, approval rates vary widely. The Diverse by Design (consciously promoting diversity, inclusion, and cultural awareness) and Classical (or liberal arts) models see approval rates around 60 percent, while less than a quarter of Gifted and Single Sex models get approved. Different models are often more or less popular in particular regions—for example, 33 percent of applications in Washington, D.C., were for Hybrid models (combination online and in person), while authorizers in Connecticut and Maryland received no Hybrid applications. One universal trend is that the No Excuses model (high expectations, strict behavioral codes) has become less popular, dropping in both number of proposals and approval rate since 2013.

NACSA’s report also identifies a shift in the types of operators proposing new charters. Over the last five years, the proportion of applications from for-profit operators (Education Management Organizations, or EMOs) have decreased by half, from 21 percent to just 10 percent. Non-profits (Charter Management Organizations, or CMOs) and unaffiliated operators each gained 5 percent of the share of applications as a result. But at the same time, 61 percent of approved schools were under the auspices of CMOs or EMOs.

Additionally, the majority of applications did not identify any external financial support—a commitment of at least $50,000 from incubators, philanthropists, or community partnerships. Those that had such backing enjoyed a much higher approval rate (up to 56 percent, compared to an average of 38 percent without any support).

The authors draw some important implications for charter school authorizers based on these findings. Perhaps most importantly, they stress that authorizers should ensure they have the capacity to review proposals for many different school models; the broad spread in approval rates may imply that authorizers are more comfortable with and likely to approve some types more than others. Second, they encourage authorizers to play an active role in the community by listening to the needs and desires of families, shepherding potential new schools through the approval process, and fostering connections between new schools and philanthropists or community leaders.

This report does not examine the quality of any of these applications; doing so would provide a great deal more information about the landscape authorizers face and some insight into why proposals for certain models or operators are less “successful” than others. Still, NACSA’s overview of recent trends in the charter school pipeline is a valuable start in what the researchers call our “north star”: “Creating more great schools for children.”

SOURCE: “Reinvigorating the Pipeline: Insights Into Proposed and Approved Charter Schools,” The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (March 2019).

Jessie McBirney is a development and research associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington, DC, after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.