What is the purpose of a charter school? Often, when talking about the role of charter schools, proponents focus on a single purpose. Some claim parental choice alone is enough for charters to exist, while others argue charter schools were meant to be hubs of innovation. By narrowing the conversation, we may be overlooking the broad range of purposes charters were envisioned to serve.
Recently, NACSA examined the legislative purposes embedded in charter school laws across the country. We found 80 percent of state charter school laws (36 out of 45 states) explicitly lay out legislative purposes for enacting the law. Of these 36 states, every single law included at least two distinct purposes for permitting charter schools, with an average of more than five.
What’s been missing from the national debate has been hiding in plain sight: every state that explicitly defined the purpose of charter schools included multiple purposes for charter schools—more than just providing choice or innovation. Too often, our conversations narrow the purpose behind charter schools, ignoring a whole range of goals the sector is intended to fulfill in the process.
While encouraging innovative instruction is the most commonly identified legislative purpose (listed in 34 states), it is far from the only purpose. Other common purposes include raising academic achievement (32 states), empowering educators (30 states), and encouraging or creating new means of school accountability (28 states). Providing additional choice is listed as a legislative purpose in 25 states.
States also identified several other purposes that, while less common, speak to an expansive vision for the charter sector, including providing opportunities for family and community involvement in the educational system (11 states) and encouraging replication and widespread adoption of successful educational strategies (8 states).
While providing more options and creating new approaches for students and families is certainly important to the charter sector, it is clear that neither choice nor innovation were ever thought to be enough on their own. Rather, charter schools have always been envisioned as key levers to radically rethink our system of public education—finding new models of instruction, empowering teachers, and reimagining accountability—all in the service of creating more schools where children thrive.
That said, it would be foolish to expect each charter school to fulfill every identified purpose. Rather, the intent is that the charter sector as a whole should achieve the intended objectives. For instance, New York’s charter law states “the purpose of this article is to authorize a system of charter schools” (emphasis added) to achieve the enumerated objectives.
This is where charter school authorizers come in.
Authorizers are tasked with fulfilling the legislative vision for the charter sector. Notably, nationally recognized authorizing standards that have been incorporated into 21 state laws (such as NACSA’s Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing) place a responsibility on authorizers to protect the interests of students and the public, including “effective and efficient public stewardship.”
Public stewardship goes beyond just the responsible use of funds. Authorizers, as stewards of their portfolios, must implement both the letter of the law and the spirit. That is why authorizers in Indiana are directed to commit to serving “in fulfillment of the expectations, spirit, and intent” of the charter school law. In California, when reviewing petitions authorizers are told that they “shall be guided by the intent of the Legislature that charter schools are and should become an integral part of the California educational system…” And in New York, an authorizer may only approve an application if “granting the application is likely to improve student learning and achievement and materially further the [legislative] purposes set out in [the charter school law].”
Authorizers are not only uniquely positioned to shape the charter school sector; they’re entrusted to do so by state legislatures in order to serve the many goals set out in state laws. Charter schools are envisioned to do more than just offer more options: they exist to rethink how students learn, how educators teach, how we hold schools accountable, and how communities are engaged in preparing the next generation. Authorizers must lead the way to ensure the sector reaches its full potential.
Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at [email protected]