The End of Low-Hanging Fruit

I was at a recent gathering of district and charter leaders.  Like most education reform nerds these days, we talked a lot about the slowing pace of charter school growth. There were a ton of theories for its root causes, and your perspective depended a lot on the type of work you were doing.  My own ideas were rooted in the lessons I’ve learned both from canvassing neighborhoods across our city and from picking apples every autumn.

The most popular theory was that recent improvements in authorizer oversight have reduced the rate of new applications being approved.  Quality charter school advocates in Ohio -- eager to shake our reputation as the “wild west” -- have fought hard to increase the rigor of charter oversight.  Not surprisingly, NACSA isn’t a big fan of this theory and their data indicates the number of new charter school applications have fallen dramatically since 2012, but approval rates have remained constant.

Ben Lindquist’s recent piece for The Thomas B. Fordham Institute points to the stifling impact over-regulation may be have on charter school growth and offers some great recommendations.  It’s certainly hard to plan a new school if you’re spending all of your time completing 374 separate reports for 13 different monitoring bodies!  He's right that focusing on compliance instead of performance and accountability isn’t helping quality schools to serve more students.  I’m just not sure it’s enough to dissuade large numbers of would-be startups.

During the years of rapid expansion, I saw first-hand how much more difficult it has become to recruit new students, even for established, high-performing charter schools.  I used to think it was a Cleveland problem, but proven, high-quality charter schools across the country are also struggling with recruitment.  The tremendous charter school growth in cities like Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia targeted neighborhoods with the highest need and demand.  As charters approach market shares of 30% or higher, continued growth opportunities have become much less obvious.

To be clear: there are still tens of thousands of children in almost every city who desperately need a better school.  Just because growth is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  Our communities need more high-quality schools.  Our children need more refuse-to-loose educators.   So, we need to be smarter about how we grow:

  • more data-driven in selecting locations
  • more strategic in our community outreach
  • more realistic in the amount of resources it takes to attract and retain students
  • more creative in our growth plans and partnerships

Many cities are starting to see the end of the low-hanging fruit.  But that doesn’t mean we should stop picking.