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Charter Schools and Pre-k: Recognizing the Opportunities

In a new paper published this week by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, I look at the common goals and challenges facing the charter school and pre-kindergarten movements, and describe how both movements could benefit from greater collaboration.

The charter school and universal pre-k movements have been two of the most significant and compelling movements in public education over the past decade. Both have grown tremendously since 2000--charters from 580,000 students served to 1.5 million and state-funded pre-k from 700,000 to more than 1.2 million--and gains in public and political support and acceptance outstrip even this rapid growth in numbers.

Moreover, both movements share a common goal of expanding the boundaries of public education in the United States: Charter schools by opening the door for entities other than local school districts to operate public schools, and universal pre-k by extending publicly funded and accountable schooling downward to include 4- and in some cases 3-year-olds. And both are driven by a strong equity agenda that seeks to improve both overall educational outcomes and narrow gaps for low-income and historically underserved youngsters.

In pursuing these goals, both the charter school and universal pre-k movements face common challenges: ensuring quality across diverse providers, building the supply of quality options and human capital for the field, and helping families make wise choices in an educational market place. And there are tremendous opportunities for the two movements to benefit by using common tools to address these challenges and working together to solve common problems.

Yet, because of the frequently silo-ed nature of education policy in the United States, these commonalities are rarely acknowledged. And there has been limited interaction or collaboration between the charter and universal pre-k movements. To be sure, a growing number of high-performing charter schools are serving pre-kindergarten students. But at the public policy level, there has been little effort to apply the tools of chartering to incorporate diverse providers into publicly funded pre-k programs. Nor has the charter school movement sought to learn from the experiences of the pre-k movement.

This paper seeks to address this gap, and spark dialogue between the pre-k and charter school sectors, by drawing attention to the common goals and challenges facing the two movements, and explaining how policymakers and pre-k advocates can use chartering as a tool to incorporate diverse providers into publicly funded pre-k programs. The paper also identifies a variety of policy an practical barriers that currently prevent many high-performing charter schools from serving pre-k students, and offers recommendations for policymakers to reduce those barriers.

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