School boards keep charters out of their districts? Not exactly

Jay Mathews over at the Washington Post is one of my favorite reporters. Do I agree with him on all the issues? No, but he is one of the all too few voices in education whose opinion is not driven by ideology. Don’t get me wrong — he has strong opinions — but you certainly can’t box Jay into an ideological box. I think he truly does his best to search for what is best for students.

However, his recent post about the Montgomery County, Maryland, school board’s refusal to accept two charter school applications spreads the myth that school boards are more resistant to charter schools than other charter school authorizing agencies.

There is just no data to back up this common claim. As a matter of fact, when looking at the data from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), the data actually shows school boards are more likely to approve a charter school application than any of the other six agencies allowed to authorize charter schools across states. School boards do decline 60 percent of charter school applications, but independent chartering boards (such as the DC Public Charter School Board Jay highlighted) reject an even greater percent of charter application at the rate of 68 percent. Only non-profit organizations have a lower rejection rate than school boards, at just 52 percent.

Not only are school boards less likely to reject a charter school application, they are also much more likely to provide or assist charter schools in finding and/or financing a facility for charter schools within their district. That doesn’t really sound like school boards are inhospitable to charter schools.

However, there may be a very good reason for why this myth stays alive. One is that many of those who promote charter schools are not big fans of school boards to begin with, and whenever they reject a charter school application they just assume school boards are trying to keep charters out of their districts instead of believing the charter school submitted a weak application. Another reason, though, is that the public (including the media) are much more likely to see a school board reject a charter school application because school boards operate in a more public forum than other authorizing agencies. While other agencies hold public meetings, school boards gather much more attention.

So the perception may be that school boards are resistant to charter schools, but, as we say in all our Learning Center videos, before you make a decision you need to look at the data first.  The data clearly shows that school boards are not the enemy of charter schools. As we know from the Center’s Charter Schools: Finding out the facts report, there is a huge variation in the quality of charter schools nationwide, with the vast majority no better than traditional public schools (although there are some great charter schools like KIPP that the report highlights).

When a school board rejects a charter school application, it may be because they know what it takes to run a school and see that some charter schools are destined for closure. Certainly, the school board should give feedback to the charters as to why their applications were rejected so they could resubmit a stronger application. – Jim Hull

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