Have We Misjudged Charter School Regulations?

By Matthew Nielsen

For too long, we’ve been judging different states’ charter school sectors using arbitrary metrics. It’s time we changed how we define success.

Someone decided over a decade ago that we should rank order the states based on whether they had certain laws and regulations on the books for charter schools. Why should anyone care about these rankings? Legislators, regulators, and charter school authorizers are proud of (or embarrassed by) how they stack up. This directs policymakers’ attention away from outcomes and toward the inputs—the rules. But, this is exactly backward. If we’re serious about educating children, we should be concerned with the education that charter school students are actually getting—or not getting, due to limited access.

But, this isn’t how we’ve done it. The rankings are published annually by the National Association for Public Charter Schools (NACPS). In their most recent report from February 2021, the group lists Washington State in third place. Washington has 12 charter schools in a state with 7.6 million people, over 1 million school-aged children, and 2,370 district schools. Washington has had charter school legislation in place since 2012. This is what they’ve accomplished in nine years and NACPS says their laws earn them the #3 spot in the national rankings. Something is wrong here.

Washington is following the book to the letter and their rankings are proof—but twelve schools? What does that say about accessibility? If they’re able to hang on to a top-5 spot, why should they care about allowing more charter schools to open? Authorizers across the country, including Washington’s, belong to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA. NACSA wrote the book that these authorizers are trying to align with. Their preoccupation with inputs has skewed state statutes and regulations away from practicality and toward theory.

Our goal today should be shifting priorities from arbitrary laws to a student-centric approach.

Recently, the Educational Freedom Institute (EFI) published new state rankings that are based on outcomes. The EFI Charter Ecosystem Rankings (ECER) use two main measures, access and effectiveness. Dr. Benjamin Scafidi and Dr. Eric Wearne of Kennesaw State University’s Education Economics Center created the new report by asking two very practical questions:

  • “Do students have access to a charter school in their area?”
  • “Are charter schools successfully facilitating student achievement?”

The answers to these simple questions provide a new, practical way to judge the effectiveness and coherency of states’ charter school laws. Success in charter school regulation should be defined not by a particular group’s favorite rules, but by how the children are benefiting. Authorizers across the country should be implementing policies that encourage access and achievement.