Get Your Charter Sector Ready for ESSA. Do You Need a Gut Job or a Coat of Paint?

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Written by: Amanda Fenton
Jan. 24, 2017

This is a guest blog post by Amanda Fenton, director of state and federal policy, National Association of Charter School Authorizers. 

The Every Student Succeeds Acts (ESSA) calls for more great charter schools.

And ESSA says states are crucially important partners to make that happen. So much so that ESSA is peppered with a blueprint on how to grow great charter schools.

Let’s find those plans and put this house together!

The first thing we need plans for is the foundation. And our instructions for that are in Title I.

ESSA continues a small provision in Title I that has a big impact. It says that “the accountability provisions under the Act shall be overseen for charter schools in accordance with State charter school law.”

This clause is designed to ensure that a generalized state school improvement scheme does not get in the way of charter school accountability. But if we unpack it further we see ESSA pointing to something deeper—state charter school law must be the foundation for charter school accountability. This means that: (1) State charter law needs to be strong; (2) State charter law needs to be enforceable; and (3) State charter law must impose meaningful, strong consequences on failing charter schools.

Our next stop is the main floor. This is where ESSA frames how to build on a foundation of accountability to grow even more great charter schools. The reauthorized federal State Charter School Program (CSP) in Title IV contains our instructions for this level.

CSP is a competitive grant program that, at any given time, can provide funding to more than two dozen states to grow state charter school sectors.

ESSA modernized it. The new CSP focuses not only on supporting the growth of new charter schools, but also on improving the quality of all charter schools. Simultaneously.

States have flexibility in how they achieve this, with some pointers from ESSA. ESSA encourages states to improve systems with a known link to quality outcomes. These are things like performance contracts, strong charter approval and renewal standards, or practice standards for charter school authorizers. For the first time ever CSP also gives states a dedicated pot of money to make these changes happen.

Next let’s put a roof on this baby to ensure the charter sector weathers other storms of change swirling in your state.

To build this protection we need to understand what change is coming. Here we turn to the rest of Title I and look for areas with the potential to have an outsized impact on charter schools. For each of these, take a moment and ask: does my Title I plan work for charter schools? Don’t be afraid to make that charter-specific adjustment. Title I law and rules give states flexibility precisely because of such complexity.

  • New schools and small schools: Charter schools are disproportionately small and disproportionately new. How a state generates data on these schools and reports on them matters for charter schools, as does n-size.
  • Local education agency (LEA) autonomies: Charters are often LEAs. As such, they can pursue any new autonomies granted to LEAs. Some of those autonomies, when rippled out in communities with a large number of charter schools, can have different impacts. For example, a state that gives LEAs flexibility to select different assessments could have a city where lots of different assessments are in use.
  • Data and their dependents: A healthy charter school sector relies on an authorizer’s ability to make high-stakes decisions. To do that authorizers and schools need information on school performance each and every year. Identify what areas of your state charter law depend on information generated by state report card data. Then come up with a plan to update those laws and help authorizers through the data transition.

Congratulations- it’s a house fit for an excellent charter sector! Now we need to get to work populating it with great charter schools.


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