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Uh, Oh: Net Charter School Growth Slows as Rate of Charter Closures Increases

July 18, 2018

Market-driven ed reform is a story of races to close gaps. However, there is one ed-reform gap that appears to be closing, with the gap closure no doubt undesired:

The national rate of charter school closures is notably gaining on the rate of charter school openings.

In spring 2018, the ed-reform publication, Education Next, published an article about the decline in charter school annual net growth (number of new charter schools minus number of charter school closures per year) since the 2013-14 school year. The graph below ends with the 2016-17 school year. Note that EdNext reports that the data from this graph comes from another ed reform org, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS).


As of this writing, NAPCS has two reports available focused on charter school enrollment, one from 2016-17 and one, from 2017-18. In 2016-17, NAPCS reported that across the nation, 329 new charter schools opened in fall 2016 as 211 had closed by spring 2016, for a net gain of 118 additional charter schools in 2016-17. The total number of charter schools open nationally in 2016-17 was 6,939, which yielded a gain of 1.7 percent (118 / 6,939), somewhat shy of the 2.3 percent EdNext listed in its spring 2018 graph, and on the lean end of the rounded “2 percent” presented in NAPCS’s 2016-17 report.

But let us give the benefit of the still-embarrassing doubt to EdNext, who may have received more precise data from NAPCS, with both pro-charter orgs understandably motivated to present this loss in the best possible light. A dim light at a best of 2.3 percent, but worth a couple more lumens than the 1.7 percent based on the data in NAPCS’s 2016-17 report.

Going beyond the data in the EdNext report: In 2017-18, NAPCS loses more lumens: 309 new charters opened across the nation in fall 2017 even as 238 had closed by spring of 2017, yielding a net gain nationally of 71 additional charter schools in 2017-18. Given that NAPCS reported 7,038 charter schools in operation in 2017-18, the net gain was 1 percent (71 / 7,038), which NAPCS reported spot-on as 1 percent.

The tortoise of charter school closure is gaining on the hare of new charter openings.

What is remarkable here is that those with money, including the federal government, are rooting for charter school expansion via charter school funding opportunities. From the National Charter School Resource Center:

The U.S. Department of Education awarded approximately $144.7 million in new grants to nine State Entities under the FY 2017 Charter Schools Program State Entities competition. The investments will enable them to run state-level grant competitions to support approximately 445 new, replicating and expanding public charter schools.


The U.S. Department of Education and various private foundations offer charter school grant funding for educator development, facilities improvements and program enhancement.

The grant landscape is ever-changing, including charter school grant opportunities. An FY18 Omnibus spending bill was recently passed by the current administration. Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, intends to funnel more than $1 billion toward private school vouchers and other school choice plans with an emphasis on charter schools. On March 23, 2018, Congress authorized $400 million in funding for charter schools; that is an increase of $58 million from last year. Keep an eye on the Department of Education funding opportunity forecast.

From the Charter School Growth Fund:

As a national nonprofit, we make multi-year, philanthropic investments in talented education entrepreneurs who are building networks of great charter schools. To date, we’ve funded 870 schools that serve over 370,000 students in 28 states, and we’re just getting started. …

We tailor our financial support to help charter schools succeed.
Our large, multiyear grants and low-interest loans are tied to customized goals. We are problem solvers and help management teams resolve the inevitable challenges of growth. We strive to be patient investors, but we are willing to restructure or end investments if problems are not resolved.

From the Walton Family Foundation:

The Walton Family Foundation has supported the creation and growth of diverse, high-quality charter schools since 1997 as part of our effort to give all families — especially those with the greatest needs — the opportunity to choose the best options for their children. In our Public Charter Startup Grant Program, we focus on supporting high-quality and high-potential charter schools serving low-income children in our target geographies.

The foundation has invested more than $407 million to grow high-quality charter schools since 1997.

Going forward, the Walton Family Foundation is committed to helping high-performing charter management organizations expand and replicate what works. It is also committed to investing more in small, independent operators who have new ideas about how to provide high-quality educational options to high-needs students. We believe entrepreneurs with new ideas can innovate, answer communities’ demands, and create great schools that meet each child’s unique needs.

And let us not forget the importance of the charter school success message and *what makes school choice work.* To that end, the US Department of Education (USDOE) is sending $10M spread over 5 years to a New Orleans-based research outfit Education Research Alliance of New Orleans (ERA) “to study how different approaches to school choice, such as voucher programs and charter schools, can better serve disadvantaged students.”

All of this money across years for charter establishment, expansion, and messaging, and still, the tortoise gains.

Even so, NAPCS has its chin up as it reports that the school closures demonstrate that the charter-school churn of school closure means that charter accountability is working. From its 2017-18 report:

While the charter school movement saw many new schools open this year, there were also 238 charter schools that ceased operation. These schools closed for a variety of reasons, including low enrollment, financial concerns and/or low academic performance. The charter model gives charter schools the freedom to be more innovative, while being held accountable for improving student achievement. School closures provide evidence that the accountability part of the charter model is being upheld.

Indeed, if recent years are any indication, the charter accountability model might indeed work so well that charter schools experience near-extinction on the national scale in the upcoming decade.

Watch out, well-funded, charter-growth hare. The tortoise of greater closure approaches.



Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. “School closures provide evidence that the accountability part of the charter model is being upheld.”

    What a sad excuse of a statement about charter school accountability. I wonder how many of those private charter school closings resulted in students and parents being left with finding another school in the middle of the year and/or right at the beginning of the year?

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Love your rabbit and tortoise image are the punctuation in this report.

    The charter industry represented by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is out with a report on charter school “deserts.” The pitch is based on the idea that charter-school “deserts” can be identified in almost every state and these deserts mean that parents do not have many choices among schools. This report includes state maps with color-coded areas that reflect several levels of poverty by census tracts. The whole idea is to rationalize more chartering in moderate income census tracts, not just those with high rates of poverty. Opportunities for expansion also are indicated for relatively high income areas.The deserts are identified so charter operators can move in.
    I also ran across a recent article identifying higher education deserts.That concept is not relevant to online programs unless they have a residency requirement. I suppose that the original desert concept refered to food deserts in high poverty communities.

  3. Christine Langhoff permalink

    Live by the markets, die by the markets. Guess charters are no longer on trend.(Wipes away crocodile tears.)

    Some number of people made bank, though, which has really been the goal all along.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider: Charter School Growth Is Declining | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. “Portfolio Model” of Charter Schools: Expanding Opportunities for Kids to Fall Thru the Cracks. | deutsch29

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