A new report from the Fordham Institute, a pro-charter think tank, inadvertently makes the case that North Carolina should stop approving new charter schools. The report, Do Authorizer Evaluations Predict the Success of New Charter Schools?, looks at the performance of North Carolina charter school authorizations between 2013 and 2019 to determine whether ratings and votes from the Charter School Advisory Board are predictive of charter school academic performance. But rather than making a convincing case for modifying North Carolina’s charter approval process, the data makes a stronger case for reinstating the cap on new charter approval. 

The Fordham Institute’s Analysis

The authors highlight four takeaways from their analysis: 

  1. Schools that more reviewers voted to approve were more likely to open their doors on time but no more likely to meet their enrollment targets; 
  2. Schools that more reviewers voted to approve performed slightly better in math but not in reading; 
  3. Ratings for specific application domains mostly weren’t predictive of new schools’ success, but the quality of a school’s education and financial plans did predict math performance; and 
  4. Despite the predictivity of reviewers’ votes, simulations show that raising the bar for approval would have had little effect on the success rate of new schools. 

From those findings, the authors provide readers with these three policy recommendations: 

  1. Authorizers should pay close attention to applicants’ education and financial plans; 
  2. Authorizers should incorporate multiple data sources and perspectives; and 
  3. Authorizers must continue to hold approved schools accountable for their results. 

Since authorizers are already adhering to the second and third recommendations, the only new policy recommendation is to pay a little more attention to certain aspects of the charter application that appear to be predictive of the schools having slightly better performance on math tests. 

However, if the authors weren’t writing for a pro-privatization publication, they might have highlighted a much more interesting takeaway with more provocative policy implications. 

Analysis shows charter schools will continue to underperform

Figure 5 compares reading and math growth scores of students in newly opened charter schools one to four years after opening against the growth scores of comparable students in existing schools. The authors conclude that stricter approval criteria are unlikely to meaningfully improve achievement outcomes in newly created charter schools. 

But what this analysis also finds is that—no matter how strict the new charter approval process—new charters will continue to underperform against existing schools.  

  • Even if charter approval required a unanimous vote, students in the new charter schools would experience less academic growth than comparable students in existing schools. 
  • Even if the state limited approval to just the best 5 percent of applicants, students in the new charter schools would experience less academic growth than comparable students in existing schools. 
  • If the state approved just one charter applicant each year, the authors estimate that students in that school might make slightly higher progress in reading, but less progress in math than comparable students in existing schools. 

There’s no conceivable scenario under which the authors predict that students in the new charter school would outperform their peers on both math and reading tests.  

This finding implies an obvious policy recommendation: if we want to maximize student progress on math and reading tests, we should stop authorizing new charter schools.  

Charter school performance in North Carolina

These results should come as no surprise to folks who have been monitoring the performance of North Carolina’s charter schools. Since the 2015-2016 school year, North Carolina’s traditional public schools have consistently delivered better test score growth than North Carolina’s charter schools. 

Of course, underwhelming test results aren’t the only reason lawmakers should stop approving new charter schools. Charter schools also: 

  • Create undue budgetary pressures on our already under-resourced traditional public schools. In 2018, researchers from Duke University estimated that in Durham County the fiscal burden from charter schools equates to about $500 per traditional public school student. 
  • Exacerbate the racial segregation of public schools, largely by serving as schools of white flight. Fifty-eight percent of charter schools are moderately or highly segregated, compared to 26 percent of schools in the traditional public school sector. 
  • Charter advocates’ focus on the private, individual benefits of education undermines the idea of education as a shared, public good. Evidence suggests that school funding effort decreases as a state’s charter sector grows. We have certainly seen that in North Carolina, as our school funding effort fell precipitously after the 2011 removal of the charter school cap.   

While I don’t expect a paper from the pro-charter Fordham Institute to mention all the ways charters negatively impact local public schools, I would expect the researchers to highlight more clearly new charters’ poor academic performance. Instead, they say it’s nothing to worry about since “prior research indicates that both students in newly created charter schools and individual students who are new to charter schools tend to improve over time.”  

Unfortunately, no amount of waiting around will help North Carolina’s students. Of the four studies cited to back their claim that charter performance improves over time, the only one relying exclusively on North Carolina data notes that charter school performance “continues to remain lower than traditional public school achievement.”  

In other words, students in new charter schools might improve their test performance over time, but they’re still more likely to have better academic results in a local public school. 

The authors should say as much. We have decades of evidence that North Carolina charter schools are a failed experiment. This latest report simply adds to that evidence. Lawmakers should follow the evidence and stop authorizing new charter schools.