Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education

December 2011
Susan Dynarski, Michelle Croft, Caroline Hoxby, Tom Loveless, Mark Schneider, Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, John Witte

Charter schools offer choice to parents who would otherwise be constrained to having their children attend a residentially assigned traditional public school. The number of charter schools has increased steadily in the last decade, reflecting their popularity with parents and the general public. They vary substantially in their missions, the students they serve, and their effectiveness. Research suggests that charter schools are particularly effective in raising the achievement of low-income and minority students in urban areas. Charter schools are underfunded in comparison to traditional public schools and have particular challenges in finding and paying for school facilities. Authorizers of charter schools decide whether charter schools can enter the market, expand, or close, and they provide ongoing performance oversight. The school districts with which charter schools compete for resources and students are the most frequent authorizers of charter schools. The authorizing function seems very important in determining the quality of charter schools, but very little is known about the relationship between variations in authorizing and school quality.

The federal government’s role in charter schools has expanded of late and is likely to be an important element in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The current federal role is a haphazard collection of laws, rules, funding preferences, and rhetoric that lacks coherence at the policy or action level. In that context, the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings gathered a group of prominent policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to address what the federal government should do if its policy were to increase the number of effective charter schools in the nation.

The recommendations for federal action advanced by these experts include: a) collecting and using more and better data on the performance of charter schools for purposes of authorizing, research, and informed parental choice; b) requiring states to provide equitable funding for charter schools relative to traditional public schools—including support for facilities; c) supporting higher standards for authorizing; d) revising rules and definitions that unintentionally disadvantage charter schools; e) promoting the growth as well as quality control of virtual charter schools; and f) finally and most importantly articulating and following through on a coherent policy with respect to charter schools.