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Why Aren't More Charter Schools Opening?

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The number of new charter schools plummeted in the 2015-16 school year, with 329 new charters setting up shop, compared to nearly twice that many—640—that opened just four years earlier.

Why have the numbers of new charter schools dropped off so sharply in recent years, even as student enrollment in charters (now more than 3 million children according to some estimates) continues to increase year over year?

It's a big question that one major player in the charter school sector—those with the power to approve new schools and shut down failing ones—has pledged to answer, paying careful attention to any part they might be playing in the slowdown.

In a new analysis of the charter sector's growth, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers finds that applications for new charters have fallen off by 48 percent since 2012. In the 2015-16 school year, the average number of applications received by large authorizers fell to just over 7, down from more than 18 in the 2011-12 school year.

charter apps chart.JPG

It's a slowdown that overlaps with what many would agree has been a relatively thriving political and economic period for charters—the sector drew robust support from the Obama administration and is expected to be embraced similarly by the pro-school choice Trump administration. And the sector could even see a generous increase in federal spending under President Trump, as it did from Obama.

NACSA—which represents groups like nonprofits, universities, and school districts with authority to approve new charter schools—examined data it collects in an annual survey of charter school authorizers that asks about a range of issues, including applications for new schools, closures, charter renewals, and staffing. 

While applications declined, NACSA found that the approval rates for charter applications have held steady at around 35 percent over the last five years. It also determined that the number of groups allowed to authorize charters in states doesn't correlate with the sector's growth.

So it does seem clear from NACSA's analysis that the fall-off in applications is the main reason behind the slowdown of the charter sector. Of course, there are likely myriad reasons. To name a few obvious ones: Some states—Massachusetts, most prominently—have hard caps on the number of charters that can open. And the big charter networks that have spread to multiple states and cities through much of the 2000s may have reached capacity for their own reasons.

But there's a whole lot more to uncover to understand why charter application numbers are plummeting. 

That's the next big question NACSA promises to tackle in a two-year research project. 

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Chart: Inside Charter School Growth: A Look at Openings, Closings, and Why Authorizers Matter from National Association of Charter School Authorizers 



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