Change the Law to Attract the Best Charter School Organizations

by James C. Sherlock

A key part of Governor-elect Youngkin’s campaign message was bringing more charter schools to Virginia. He wants to attract the best charter schools, and he wants to get started on day one.

The path must start with changing Virginia law — in 2022. Fortunately there is a model law available from which to jumpstart that effort. Legislators will have to start immediately to prepare a bill for the 2022 session.

It will take a bipartisan effort to pull it off in a way that can make the changes permanent. By “bipartisan,” I am not talking about winning one Democratic vote in the Senate. Successful charter management organizations (CMOs) won’t expand into a new territory where they see political risk.

Bipartisanship on this issue is possible because the state of some of Virginia’s urban schools is so demonstrably horrible that they sentence children to lifelong struggles. It is exactly those children whom the best charter schools have rescued.

There are good people on the Democratic side that will join in an effort to attract proven-successful charter management organizations to Virginia to address that issue specifically.

The unions will squeal, but I think most Democrats in the General Assembly will look what the teachers unions did for Terry McAuliffe and choose what is best for the children.

Charter schools are independent, public, and tuition-free schools. To deliver on their charters, they must be free to be innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement.

Public charter schools served more than 3.3 million (6.5%) public school students in the United States as of the 2018-19 school year.

Charter schools can be managed independently, by a charter management organization (CMO), or by an education management organization (EMO). The eight current Virginia charters are independently managed.

CMOs are organizations that directly operate and hold the charter contracts of at least three charter schools. They are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. EMOs support charter operators, but do not hold the charters themselves. From the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:

“EMOs are management organizations with a for-profit tax status, although it is incorrect to label these schools as “for-profit.” A nonprofit charter school governing board that wants to partner with an EMO may apply to an authorizer for a charter. If the application is approved, the board enters into a contract with the for-profit company to manage or provide other services for the school.”

Also from the National Alliance:

“CMOs enroll the highest share of Black and Hispanic students across management types, while EMOs and freestanding charter schools enroll the highest shares of White students. Overall, the top 10 CMOs and EMOs account for 21.5% of charter school enrollment.”  

In Virginia, we want the most successful CMOs, but here they are blocked by law from the very innovation that makes them successful.

Not a red state/blue state issue. Surprisingly, states with the most robust charter school programs show no red-blue divide.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS)ranks Virginia’s current laws governing charter schools in the bottom six among all states.
The top scorers are Colorado, Indiana, Washington, Minnesota, Mississippi, Maine and West Virginia.
The worst is Maryland, followed in ascending order by Kansas, Alaska, Wyoming, Iowa and Virginia.

Some of the most successful examples of urban charters are in New York City and Washington D.C.

The highest numbers of students in charter schools also shows no political divide:

  • California — 654,549
  • Texas — 357,217
  • Florida — 312,367
  • Arizona– 207,923
  • New York — 147,345

Similarly the states with the fewest charter students (of the 44 that have them) are:

  • Guam — 1,363
  • Virginia — 1,232
  • Alabama (newly authorized by law) — 598
  • Wyoming — 568
  • Iowa — 442
  • Puerto Rico — 58

Correct. Virginia has fewer charter school students than Guam.

Charter management organizations’ success. Some charter schools are successful, some are not. The most successful by far are run by charter management organizations.

In 2019, the Department of Education awarded Charter School Program Grants to 15 entities. Organizations that received 2018 CSP Grants for the Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools are:

  • Alpha Public Schools
  • AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation
  • Aspire Public Schools
  • ASU Preparatory Academy
  • Building the Future Education Collaborative
  • Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids (BRICK)
  • Collegiate Academies
  • Crescent City Schools
  • Ednovate Inc.
  • IDEA Public Schools
  • Inspire NOLA Charter Schools
  • KIPP Foundation in Consortium with KIPP Regions
  • Responsive Education Solutions
  • Scholarship Prep
  • Success Academy Charter Schools

Charter schools are not a vocation for amateurs. Those are the organizations that we specifically want to expand into Virginia.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University in October of 2017 released a New York City Charter School Report. A summary:

The results of our latest analysis show that on average, charter students in New York City gain an additional 23 days of additional learning in reading and an additional 63 days of learning in math over their district school peers” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University.

• The new results for charter students represent an increase of 22 days of learning in reading compared to their results four years ago. Results for math have remained the same.

• For Black and Hispanic students, the analysis indicates a significant academic advantage from charter school enrollment.

• Hispanic charter school students perform at the same level as their white district school peers, representing no annual learning gap.

• For the analysis, a total of 97,118 charter school students from 248 schools are followed from the 2011-12 school year to 2015-16 school year.

Students attending charter schools affiliated with a Charter Management Organization (CMO) have better learning gains than district school peers in both reading and math. The positive impact is equivalent to about 57 days of learning in reading and 103 more days in math.

The gains in learning days are a major step toward closing the achievement gap— especially when students from disadvantaged backgrounds are showing the greatest positive impact from attending a public charter school.

No person who cares a fig for the children of Richmond, for example, does not want to see those results in Virginia.

Not one of the most successful charter management organizations runs a charter school in Virginia because Virginia laws prevent them from the very innovations that have made them successful.

Model law. For Virginia legislators who want to get a comprehensive bill on the floor in the 2022 session, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has crafted a model law.

I recommend the House and Senate bring a Virginia version of that model law to the floor in January to replace the current Title 22.1, Chapter 13, Article 1.2. Establishment of Charter Schools.

Only such a law will enable the Governor to recruit the best charter operators.

Virginia’s most disadvantaged children desperately need them.