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What Are States Doing About Charter Schools in Their ESSA Plans?

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States so far are making little mention of charter schools in their federal Every Student Succeeds Act plans, instead lumping charter and traditional public schools together in accountability proposals, according to a new report.

The Education Commission of the States this month released a policy brief, called Charter School Accountability Under ESSA, that examines how states and the District of Columbia are addressing charter schools in their plans to the U.S. Department of Education on the new federal law.

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Jennifer Thomsen, the author and director of the commission's Knowledge and Research Center, examined 22 plans—17 have been submitted and five were drafts—for the report. Read about the 17 ESSA plans in Education Week's Politics K-12 blog.

Of those, five plans specifically address charter schools, she said. In some cases, states are planning to continue what they were already doing under the previous law, No Child Left Behind.

"What we're really seeing in most of the accountability sections is that district and charter schools are being treated exactly the same," Thomsen said.

One unique idea is in Maryland's draft ESSA plan from December.

The state would provide training to charter schools and authorizers about using weighted lotteries—a way to give certain student groups, such as low-income children, a better chance of gaining spots in charter schools. My colleague, Arianna Prothero, wrote about the issue of weighted lotteries last year.

Maryland expects to submit its final plan in late summer, said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the state's education department said in an email.

If the weighted lottery idea stays, Maryland could be the first state to assist charter schools and authorizers in implementing such practices. Currently, state laws vary on using weighted lotteries, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the practice is usually left up to individual schools that want to diversify their populations.

"To have a state put this clearly out as an option for schools ... is really huge," said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank that has studied this issue. "I think that would be really exciting if this goes through in the Maryland plan ... so more charter schools know this is an option."

Here are some other mentions of charter schools in ESSA plans: 

  • Tennessee would replicate high-quality charter school models, decrease the number of low-performing charters, and work on closing the achievement gap among students.
  • The District of Columbia would award $1.5 million in grant money for recruiting and training high quality teachers for charters.
  • New Mexico's plans for "persistently failing schools" are similar to those under NCLB guidelines. After three years of a school failing to meet its goals, the school could close and restart under a charter school operator or students could choose to transfer to another school, such as a charter.

When Thomsen started the study last fall, she said she didn't anticipate that so few states would directly address charter schools in their plans, even after increased talk about charter schools since President Donald Trump's election.

"There's not that much in the state plans, in spite of the fact that it's been talked about so much," Thomsen said about the national discussion. "ESSA does defer to state law on a lot of charter school accountability issues, so that's really a decision that the states can make."

Want to know the latest on ESSA? Check out Education Week's ESSA page.

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected]

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