SEF Weighs in on New Proposals to Improve the Charter School System

April 26, 2022

The United States Department of Education recently published new proposed priorities for public comment for the Federal Quality Charter Schools grant program and called for public comments on those priorities.

As an organization dedicated to ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education, the Southern Education Foundation’s (SEF) primary focus is on supporting and improving the conditions for learning in traditional public schools that educate the overwhelming majority of students. At the same time, SEF supports high-quality nonprofit charter school networks that are inclusive, evidence-based, and accountable to serving the representative local student population.

The Department’s proposed rules include prioritizing applicants who want to create new or expand existing charter schools that conduct and provide a community assets assessment and a community impact analysis. We believe both activities would help ensure charter operators create the type of charter schools that best serve students and their communities.

In our public comments we addressed those two proposals and the rule that clarifies the appropriate contractual role for-profit charter school operators within this grant program.

Community Assets Assessment

The Department proposes encouraging grant applicants to conduct a community assets assessment by prioritizing those applicants who do so. SEF strongly supports this proposal, because understanding a community’s strengths allows charter providers to create curricula that address student needs and can improve student outcomes. Such an assessment will also help charter operators establish partnerships with people and organizations in the community to support student engagement and help ensure that the school culture meets the needs of students in the community. Using community assets assessment also empowers parents and other community members to play a more fundamental role in shaping the development of local charter schools.

Community Impact Analysis

The Department also proposes requiring applicants to conduct a community impact analysis. Essentially, the analysis would have to outline the need, number, and types of charters schools that should be created to improve the local community. Another key component of the proposed community impact analysis is that grantees must make clear that they will not negatively affect any desegregation efforts. Such an analysis would help to ensure that the students enrolled in a charter school reflect the demographics of the community in which the school is located. That additional level of accountability would help increase equitable access to high-quality learning environments.

Ensuring Nonprofit Charter Schools Receive the Grants Intended for Them

While they cannot currently receive direct grants or subgrants from the federal Charter School Program (CSP), for-profit entities can enter into contracts with charter schools to manage specific services. Taking advantage of this provision, some for-profit operators have taken over the business operations of entire charter schools. Some of those schools have attempted to fire the for-profit operators when they were not providing adequate or satisfactory service and have found they cannot do this without harming the entire school and students. Moreover, research has shown that students attending charter schools operated by for-profit managers have poorer outcomes than their peers in public schools or nonprofit charter schools.

The rules proposed by the Department regarding the Federal Quality Charter Schools grant program would ensure that schools operated by for-profit management corporations do not receive CSP grants. This would help avoid situations like those described above.

The original mission of charter schools was to serve as a hub for innovation in education and to share lessons learned with the public school system. SEF supports this mission as it contributes to improving the entire public education ecosystem. Public funds are intended for public education, so we must invest in the charter schools that will serve their communities, provide equal access to high-quality instruction, and collaborate with the public school system to share successful innovations in teaching and learning that improve outcomes and opportunity for all students.