Charter Schools: Facts & Issues
Published by the
LWVAL Education Fund
April 2011

VI.   Establishing and operating a charter school

A proposed charter school must be approved and chartered by an entity authorized by the state. An authorizing entity may approve or reject charter school applications, enter into a charter school contract with approved applicants, monitor performance, and review expired contracts to determine whether to renew or revoke the charter. The process for becoming an authorizing authority and their responsibilities varies by state. In some states, a local school board is the sole authorizer. Washington, D.C. and Hawaii have charter school review boards, which are the sole authorizing authorities. Other states offer multiple authorizing options, including independent or quasi-independent (from state school boards) organizations and authorizing centers located at universities and non-profit organizations. Alabama‘s 2010 charter school legislation permitted local boards of education to register as authorizers, while allowing the State Board of Education to authorize charters schools in districts where there are no registered authorizers. This chart from the Center for Public Education shows authorizing authorities by type and which state uses them.15

Local school board alone
State board of education alone
Local school board and state board of education
First local school board then state board of education
State charter school review board
D.C., HI
Local school board and state charter school commission
Combination (in some cases including higher education and not - for- profit)

In addition to variations in the charter approval process, there are variations in the appeals process if a charter is revoked, or an application is denied, and whether there are caps on the number of charter schools allowed in the state or district. Opinions vary as to which route is the most conducive to quality charter schools. However, there is general consensus that the willingness of the chartering entities to close or not re-authorize poorly performing schools is crucial to the health of charter schools in a state. Advocates for charter schools tout the fact that market forces make sure that ineffective charter schools are closed. However, problems arise when a charter school closes without sufficient notice (or opens later than planned). Parents and school officials have little time to find alternatives for their children. Also, charter schools slated for closing can elicit the same level of parental and community resistance to closing as any other school. Such factors make it as difficult for authorities to close charter schools as it is to close traditional schools.

In a July 2010 speech to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "I challenge the charter community to be more vocal and to step out on charter schools that weren't succeeding, bad charter schools. Quite frankly, I‘ve felt a lack of courage around that this past year, and I think the damage that that‘s doing to all of you in the charter brand around the country is unfortunately huge. As we look to shut down and turn around the 5,000 lowest performing schools around the country, about 200 of those happen to be charter schools, and that to me is absolutely unacceptable."16

The mechanisms for authorizing charter schools, the level of regulation on them, and requirements for accountability from them vary from state to state, as does the application process. These web sites offer opportunities to compare various features related to authorizing criteria:

  • The Education Commission of the States, an interstate compact created in 1965 to improve public education, offers an interactive map that provides profiles of charter school policies state by state—including what entities have charter approval authority, criteria for student eligibility, reporting requirement, and rules pertaining to teachers.
  • The Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter school organization, evaluates and ranks the components of chartering legislation in each state on an annual basis. The Charter School Laws Across the States 2011 Rankings and Scorecard, 12th Edition‖ is presented as an online, interactive map: The information looks at authorizers, number of schools allowed, operational autonomy, and equity (funding levels).
  • US Charter Schools provides an interactive map showing statistics on each state‘s charter schools, and offers a quick overview of chartering legislation for them.
  • National Association of Charter School Authorizers created an interactive map showing specific authorizers in each state and how many schools they oversee.

After charter schools are authorized, the task of running them must be addressed. As mentioned earlier charter schools are managing their own administration, in addition to educating students and encouraging the professional development of their staff. A growing trend is to contract with non-profit charter management organizations or for-profit education management organizations to handle these responsibilities. "The CMO [charter management organization] model is meant to meld the benefits of school districts—including economies of scale, collaboration among similar schools, and support structures—with the autonomies and entrepreneurial drive of the charter sector."17 According to the Center for Reinventing Public Educations, "The vast majority of CMO-affiliated schools operate in nine states (California, Arizona, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, New York, Louisiana, Florida, and Pennsylvania) and the District of Columbia. CMO-affiliated schools are also concentrated in big cities, particularly Los Angeles, New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, the District of Columbia, and Houston."18

The Center for Public Education reports that "[f]or-profit education management organizations (EMOs) and nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) represent a small but growing portion— approximately 9 percent—of charter schools nationally. Despite their small national numbers, management organizations (MOs) represent a significant focus of foundation grants and private investment and have attracted considerable attention from policymakers and media."19 In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was awarding 12 charter school grants totaling $50 million for charter management organizations to replicate and expand high-quality charter schools that have demonstrated success.20

© 2011 League of Women Voters of Alabama Education Fund. All rights reserved.