On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved charter school renewals for the Academy of Dover and Prestige Academy with potentially strict, but, as yet, undefined conditions related to student performance and financial management. These conditions will be promulgated over the next month in new regulations that would supplement or replace an inconsistently-enforced regulation that requires charter schools to “meet or exceed” the statewide average on state assessments. This regulation would set clearer standards for charter school performance and help DOE improve charter school oversight.
The inclusion of these conditions may have helped Academy of Dover, in particular, secure a renewal. Two board members indicated that they may otherwise have voted against renewal, which was somewhat surprising given that AOD’s DCAS scores are only modestly below state averages and certainly well above those of a handful of chronically under-performing Delaware charters. Moreover, the school received a Superior rating from the state last year.
While the specifics of the proposed regulation are still in development, a presentation by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and Public Impact, an education policy and consulting firm, at the Board’s public work session earlier in the day shed light on the possible direction of impending policy changes. Among the various metrics recommended for tracking include:
- Student growth (either towards proficiency status or relative to state averages)
- Student proficiency
- College readiness (e.g. SAT scores, graduation rate, post-secondary admissions or persistence rates)
- Mission-specific academic goals of individual charter schools
- Various school-wide financial metrics and ratios
While these measures are clearly more comprehensive and exhaustive than the existing regulation on charter school performance, they would also recognize that comparing all charter schools against state averages is potentially unfair and even misleading. Charters predominantly serving low-income populations might not be comparable to schools serving more affluent students. Thus, the academic framework envisions comparing charter schools against other schools with similar demographic characteristics, as well as comparing charter sub-group (e.g. low income, African American) performance against statewide averages for such subgroups.
Unfortunately, when measured against these metrics using current performance data, many charter schools substantially underperform the benchmarks outlined by NASCA and Public Impact. Indeed, Delaware has a highly bifurcated charter school environment. While many charter schools greatly outperform districts schools—in fact, the top three schools in the state for reading are charter schools, as are three of the top four schools in math—many others perform well below state-wide averages.
We think a robust accountability framework for charter schools will help improve their performance, particularly at schools that consistently underperform. At the same time, state leaders need to recognize how acutely underfunded Delaware charter schools are. On a per pupil basis, our charters receive roughly $10,000 in funding per year, compared with about $13,000 at traditional district schools. Over $1,250 of this gap is due to the lack of state and local tax support for charter school facilities, meaning that unlike districts, charters need to pay for their facilities costs—be they leases or mortgages—out of their operating budgets, thereby squeezing funds available to pay for critical instructional needs like teacher salaries and classroom supplies. Until state leaders recognize that they’ve created an unlevel playing field, many charter schools will continue to struggle to realize their full potential, regardless of the good intentions of any accountability framework.