A Progressive Rubric for Charter School Policy

Wesley R. Whistle, Education Policy Advisor, Third Way, NLC Kentucky


Albert Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, is generally known for coining the term “charter school” — though a few schools already existed in principle. Charter schools — commonly shortened to “charters” — are public schools who receive funds from the government, but typically have more autonomy over the way teach students and run their school than traditional public schools. Parents, community organizations, non-profits, educators and even private entities lead the charter as authorizers. Charter schools can be either non-profit or for-profit. Charters have even been implemented in a virtual format, some entirely and some in a hybrid model.

While charters have more autonomy over the way they are ran, they still have accountability through their authorizer. Though opponents of charter schools may conflate accountability with autonomy, there is a difference. Authorizers are the legal entities who determine who can start a new charter school. Additionally, they set the expectations of the school and monitor performance. Authorizers even decide which schools remain open or not. Through both positive and negative rewards, authorizers can provide accountability for performance ensuring effective schools while still protecting the autonomy of decision making within the schools.

For decades, charter schools have become one of the leading tools for education reform. Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school bill in 1991 and — with that bill — a school reform movement began. Since then, advocates have pushed to expand charters. This year, Kentucky became the forty-fourth state (plus the District of Columbia) to enact charter school legislation. While many states have passed this legislation, it looks very different state to state. Each passed laws with differing levels of accountability and regulation, some to the detriment of students.

Proponents of charter schools advocate they provide an innovative approach to education due to less strict regulations. Some charter school advocates push charters as a tool to help low-income students and those students of color. Choice is also usually a benefit of charter schools. Rather than just sending their child to the school in their district, parents are enabled to choose a school. Sometimes charters are implemented as neighborhood schools allowing students who traditionally travel a good distance from their home a chance to remain close to home.

There are many pieces of data showing the positive impact of charter schools on educational attainment, improving outcomes for poor students, and even on the impact on long-term attainment and future earnings of graduates. A progressive case for charters schools can easily be made. Progressives who care about education should support charters as a tool for educational reform. This piece however, is not one making that case. While this is sometimes a politically divisive issue for both sides of the aisle, it is clear charter schools are part of the education reform tools used now and will continue for the foreseeable future. It is critical both proponents and opponents work together to ensure the best policy for charter schools are enacted to improve outcomes for all students.

Core Values

Some universal core values unite progressives in the area of education. Some of these values include universal access to quality education; equitable distribution of education resources; and accountability in service of effective education. When charter school legislative is proposed, these values provide a litmus test to ensure the schools meet these standards.


Universal access to quality education is critical. Students should have the opportunity to receive a high quality education no matter their zip code. This means students should be able to go to high quality schools no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or national origin, or socioeconomic status. In charter schools, universal access also requires charters to be placed in areas of highest need and policies should specify this as a requirement and prioritize those areas. Children should have equal opportunity to a quality education regardless of income. Charter schools should also be located in areas where there is demand for them from the local community, parents, and/or students. Additionally, charters should have admission policies that do not discriminate in any way, whether explicitly or inherently. Charter policy can include prioritizing students who come from a low socioeconomic background, with an easy qualifier being to prioritize those students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Charters can also serve as a tool to integrate schools, both in demographic and economic means.

Equitable Distribution

A major part of guaranteeing access is ensuring equitable distribution of education resources. This is important so students receive this high quality education. This means funding schools in an equitable manner. In practice, charter school policies should ensure students’ needs are met. States should enact legislation ensuring charters have the appropriate amount of funding to be effective. Funding affects students’ access to technology, extracurricular activities, and facilities, which all play a role in a student’s education. For many areas, access to facilities is a critical issue. In urban areas where property values can be expensive, finding a permanent home for a charter school is a difficult challenge. Policies must ensure funding is available for charter schools to have access to facilities that can serve students.

Equitable distribution of education resources also includes access to excellent teachers and leaders. Every child in this country deserves a good teacher (and principal) in a good school. Policies should be in place to ensure charters are able to attract and retain high quality teachers and leaders. Faculty and staff having access to competitive salaries and benefits — including retirement. Successful charter schools include those where unions exist and those without.


Accountability in service of effective education is crucial to ensuring a high quality education for students. Schools should have the proper oversight to guarantee they properly serve all students. Accountability exists in several different ways. One way is through a strong and thoughtful authorization process. This includes having an authorizer who understands education and will hold schools accountable for performance, including closing failing schools. States should select multiple authorizers who are effective in monitoring schools. Additionally, strong accountability means schools are not run by a for-profit company. For-profits are inherently not accountable because those schools are working to make a profit, not to improve student-learning outcomes. While those two things can be achieved, schools working to make a profit have the inherent problem of serving the bottom line first. Furthermore, a recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, also known as CREDO, found nonprofit charter schools provide 23 more days of math and 6 more days of reading than for-profit charters.[i]

The next section examines several states in these areas. Through these case studies, we will look at each state’s policies through the lens of these criteria as a rubric for quality charter school policy. Much of the data below comes from studies by CREDO.

Case Studies

To analyze state policy it is wise to look at several states who have implemented charter schools in several different ways. In each of the states below, some have had great success, others have had mixed results, but all provide valuable lessons. In the following paragraphs, we will look at the following states: Arizona, California, Massachusetts and Michigan.


Arizona’s state legislature first authorized charter schools in 1994, the first ones opening in 1995. In Arizona, students enroll in charters schools at some of the highest rates. In the 2012–2013 academic year, Arizona had the highest percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools at 13.3 percent. This was almost three times the national average at 4.6 percent.[ii] While the state enrolls a higher rate of students in charter schools, performance have been mixed across the state.

When it comes to admissions policies, Arizona’s state law requires admission to eligible students with some typical preference clauses such as students who previously attended, siblings of students, children of employees, and more. Additionally, if schools meet capacity, Arizona requires an “equitable selection process” such as a lottery. Arizona also provides an anti-discrimination clause forbidding the limitation of admission based on ethnicity, national origin, gender, income level, disabling condition, English language proficiency or athletic ability. While these requirements exist, the data shows there were 9 percent fewer racial and ethnic minority students in Arizona charters than traditional public schools as recently as the 2013–2014 school year. In that same year, Arizona charters also had 12 percent fewer free-and-reduced students than traditional public schools.[iii]

Caps are another important area to consider when evaluating access. Arizona provides access in this area by not placing caps on charter school growth, by number of schools or students. According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, in the 2016–17 school year, about 16 percent of Arizona students attended a charter school and about 30 percent of public schools were charters suggesting that students have access to several options.

When looking at the resources provided to charters, several areas must be reviewed. Funding formulas tend to be complex, but the consensus is Arizona charters receive fewer dollars. According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, Arizona has had a consistent — though narrowing — funding gap between charters and districts in per pupil spending. In 2015, district students received $1,196 more than charter students ($9,250 per student for districts compared to $8,054 for charters).[iv] A national study of charter school finance found in 2011 the 372 charter schools in Arizona, in aggregate, received 18.5 percent less in revenues per pupil than district schools.[v] While Arizona law does not provide complete equitable funding, it does allow the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools to receive grants and gifts. Additionally, the department of education provides some oversight functions, relieving some of the burden.

Arizona has some disparities when it comes to facilities. Traditional public school districts have taxing authority, so when there are facility needs in their district they can raise taxes to provide funds for new facilities or renovations. Charter schools do not have that option. Arizona law provides for “Additional Assistance” through a per pupil allocation meant to offset the lack of taxing authority. This amount is established by the legislature each year and does not provide enough funds to equalize the funding gap. Arizona provides equity in the way properties are treated by regulating the classification of facilities the same as traditional public schools in terms of zoning fees and more.

As previously stated, resources include faculty and staff. Arizona laws provide for charters to be competitive in hiring and recruiting qualified faculty and staff. Currently, teachers working for charters authorized through a university, a community college district, a group of community college districts, the state board of education or the state board for charter schools are eligible for participation in Arizona’s state retirement system. Additionally, teachers who leave a school district for a charter school receive employment preference if they wish to return to the district within three years. This flexibility allowed teachers is important for competitive hiring.

Previously lacking in the area of accountability, Arizona has taken great steps to increase accountability. Each school is evaluated with a report card, which is sent to parents and evaluates the schools on information such as test data and safety records. All public schools — including charters — are subject to a labeling system. If a charter is labeled as a failing school for two years in a row, the charter may be revoked. Authorizers are also required to submit an annual report to the auditor general. The report includes both academic and operational performance of the authorizer’s adopted performance framework.


Ahead of Arizona was California, enacting charter school legislation in 1992. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in the 2016–2017 academic year there were more than 604,000 students enrolled in approximately 1,253 public charter schools in California. California has experienced great success in their charter schools. The CREDO analysis of charter performance in California showed mixed results as well. There have been significant gains in reading for charter students, but losses in math.[vi]

Like Arizona, California has the typical non-discrimination policies in the law for admissions policies. State law goes further as it also prohibits discrimination in public schools based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation adding an additional layer of protection for those vulnerable students. Data from the California Charter Schools Association shows California charters do not enroll a significantly higher amount of minority or low-income students though they enroll them at comparable rates. Though the demographic makeup of California charters may not be drastically different of traditional public schools, the results have varied. In one study, CREDO found that black students in charters performed significantly better in reading and math — an additional 22 more days of learning in reading and seven in math.[vii] The same study also found a gain of seven days in reading for Hispanic students. However, there were not those same gains in math for Asian and White students. For students in poverty, the gains were much greater showing how charters can benefit those students. California also ensures access for parents and students to school choice by not over limiting the number of charters allowed. While there is a cap in place, there is ample room for growth. The cap is currently set well above the existing number of schools and grows by 100 every year.

While California provides funding for public schools via the Local Control Funding Formula, a funding gap remains between traditional public and charter schools. In 2011, charter schools in California received 25.5 percent less per pupil basis than traditional schools. Charters received $8,324 vs. $11,172 for traditional public schools — $2,848 less.[viii] However the data is based on 2011 data, so with new legislation and new data this number is expected to decrease to more equitable levels. Facilities are an area of concern for California charters, especially in urban areas like Los Angeles. These areas can have high property values causing limited access to quality facilities. California does provide funds to charters to assist with facility costs through their Charter School Facility Grant Program. In 2016, Proposition 51 passed and provided $500 million dollars to the Charter School Facilities Program (CSFP).

California law requires charter schools to participate in the state’s accountability system, which includes a report card produced by the state. These report cards do not evaluate authorizers on certain types of measures like financial performance. Charters are required to provide audits and other financial reports, which are made available to the public. The law also provides for specific compliance requirements specifically for virtual charter schools. One weakness is California law is it does not prohibit the operation of for-profit charter schools though they are still subject to the same laws and regulations as non-profit charter schools. However, these schools remain a very small percentage of the total number of charter schools in the state. Charters in California are both some of the highest performing and lowest performing. There have been calls for more accountability for those at the bottom, but they have not been as successful. As recently as 2016, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed pieces of legislation providing further accountability.


Massachusetts was an early adopter of charter schools as well. Charter legislation was enacted there in 1993 and, as of the 2016–2017 year, there were an estimated 81 charter schools serving and an estimated 44,200 public school students. A CREDO study of charter schools in Massachusetts found charter students “learned significantly more” than their counterparts in both reading and math.[ix] Most of these gains were found to be driven by growth of charters in Boston, where charters have shown higher amounts of gains.

Along with California, Massachusetts has a more comprehensive non-discrimination policy prohibiting discrimination to include gender identity, sexual orientation and more. Massachusetts ensures access by forbidding tests of ability or achievement, interviews, or informational meetings as a condition of enrollment. In instances where the number of applicants exceeds available spaces, an enrollment lottery is held. Access to charter schools is important for students to have the opportunity to attend. Massachusetts limits this access through its cap on charter school growth. The specifics of the caps are more detailed, but should be removed or increased to allow for proper growth allowing students access to charters. A recent Brookings report explained that this cap harmful to disadvantaged students in urban areas where the caps matter and where charters have shown the best performance.[x]

As of FY 2015, about 90 percent of charter school funding in Massachusetts comes from the district a student would have otherwise attended.[xi] The remaining 10 percent come from state and federal grants as well as from private donations through fundraising. Funding levels show a gap between charter schools and traditional public schools. While charter schools educated 3 percent of Massachusetts’s students in 2011, charters only received 2.5 percent of all funds in Massachusetts.[xii] Massachusetts also requires charter schools to participate in the state teacher retirement systems. While this can be more costly, it allows teachers flexibility and makes the hiring and recruitment process more competitive.

Massachusetts allows a balance of autonomy and accountability in its charter legislation. Current law requires data be collected on demographic makeup of each charter school as well as the number of English language learners. This data must be filed with the appropriate people with the legislature. While the legislature and governor are not required to review the data, they have access to it at any point. The legislature and governor can also remove authorizing authority from the state board of education. One weakness here is the number of authorizers. Massachusetts currently only allows the state board of education to authorize charter schools. Accountability is also provided by a thorough application process with a renewal period every five years. Finances of charters are also reviewed annually by independent auditors and are subject to audit by the state.


Along with other states of this study, Michigan enacted charter legislation in 1993. In the most recent school year, there were approximately 301 charter schools serving around 146,100 students. Charters in Michigan have been highly controversial and have had mixed results. A CREDO study found charters in Michigan moderately outperformed traditional public schools. This was especially true in Detroit where many public schools perform at the bottom.[xiii] On the other end of the spectrum, the same study found that “about 80 percent of charters perform below the 50th percentile of achievement.”

Access to charter schools in Michigan is not a problem for most. Michigan has the typical anti-discrimination law for admissions, though it does not protect LGBT students. There is also a lottery process in place when there is more demand than vacancies. Michigan charters have also served minority and low-income students at a higher rate than most. According to the Education Trust — Midwest, in the 2014–2015 academic year, charters in Michigan had 60 percent students of color compared to 21 percent in traditional public schools.[xiv] In that same year, 70 percent of charter students qualified for free or reduced price lunch compared to 44 percent in traditional schools. No caps exist in Michigan law essentially, other than for “schools of excellence” and cyber charter schools.

Funding in Michigan places charters at a disadvantage. Charters do not have access to local funds as districts do. Charter schools receive a per-pupil operating revenue from the state with access to categorical funding. Because the state provides a maximum, many charters receive less than the district where they reside. In FY 2011, Michigan charters received $3,633 less than traditional schools — a 27.7 percent difference.[xv] Michigan law also does not provide transportation funding to either school districts or charters creating a barrier for charters since they have no access to local funds. Current law allows Michigan charters to have access to some capital funding through loans and bond levy fund (for charters sponsored by districts). Currently, Michigan law makes participation in state retirement systems optional by making it dependent on employee status. This option gives potential teachers the choice of whether to work at a school that participates or not. Teachers also must be certified by the state like traditional public schools, except ones authorized by public universities or community colleges.

Michigan’s accountability is also mixed. The law is good in that multiple authorizers are allowed and must be accredited in order to operate. However, a weakness is that statute does not require regular review by an oversight body. The state superintendent does have the ability to suspend an authorizer’s ability to issue future charters if he or she finds there is not appropriate oversight. Furthermore, the state board of education is required to submit an annual report to the legislature. A report by the Education Trust showed that Michigan has closed some low performing schools, but other authorizers have failing schools that remain in operation. It is essential for accountability policy to close those schools not performing to standard. Michigan also allows for-profit charter school operators limiting the accountability.


We must provide a caveat. A state with good charter school policies in place does not always prevent bad charter schools there, just as a state might have bad policies and successful charters. Results within states are complicated, even those reported above. There are some wildly successful charters in all states and some failing ones as well. It is important to understand local decisions along with policy play a role in the performance of schools. This means crafting good policy is crucial to set schools up for success. Some charters may be extremely successful, but they may also only serve certain groups of students and exclude the students needing them most. The criteria established above provide a baseline. There are certainly more criteria needed, but these are the foundation on which policy should be built.

Strong charter policy has relevance to traditional school systems as well. Strong accountability models for performance for charters can be applied to those traditional schools. Having those accountability standards provides an opportunity for a district to assess their portfolio and makes decisions of schools to target for improvement, close, or to replicate. We can ensure all students have access to a quality education by using accountability standards from charters and holding all schools accountable.

[i] CREDO. (2017). Charter Management Organizations. Stanford: Standford University.

[ii] Chingos, M. M., & West, M. R. (2015). The Uneven Performance of Arizona’s Charter Schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis , 37 (1S), 120S-134S.

[iii] The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2016). The Health of the Charter School Public School Movement: A State-by-State Analysis. Washington, D.C.

[iv] The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2016). The Health of the Charter School Public School Movement: A State-by-State Analysis. Washington, D.C.

[v] Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J. M., Speakman, S. T., Wolf, P. J., & Cheng, A. (2014). Charter School Funding: Inequity Expands. Fayetteville, Ar: School Choice Demonstration Project, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas.

[vi] CREDO. (2014). Charter School Performance in California. http://credo.standford.edu.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J. M., Speakman, S. T., Wolf, P. J., & Cheng, A. (2014). Charter School Funding: Inequity Expands. Fayetteville, Ar: School Choice Demonstration Project, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas.

[ix] CREDO. (2013). Charter School Performance in Massachusetts. Stanford, CA: Standford University.

[x] CREDO. (2013). Charter School Performance in Massachusetts. Stanford, CA: Standford University.

[xi] Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. (2016, April 6). Charter School Funding, Explained. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.massbudget.org/report_window.php?loc=Charter-School-Funding,-Explained.html

[xii] Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J. M., Speakman, S. T., Wolf, P. J., & Cheng, A. (2014). Charter School Funding: Inequity Expands. Fayetteville, Ar: School Choice Demonstration Project, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas.

[xiii] CREDO. (2013). Charter School Performance in Massachusetts. Stanford, CA: Standford University.

[xiv] The Education Trust — Midwest. (2016). Accountability for All: 2016. The Education Trust.

[xv] Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J. M., Speakman, S. T., Wolf, P. J., & Cheng, A. (2014). Charter School Funding: Inequity Expands. Fayetteville, Ar: School Choice Demonstration Project, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas.