When an organization wants to create a charter school, it first has to identify which authorizer oversees charters in its municipality or state. Authorizers are the entities that decide whether to approve new charter schools, that monitor them and that can close them. Most authorizers are local school boards, but authorizers can be other types of entities as well, such as universities or independent state agencies. For more information about authorizers, see the Governance and Regulation section.
Authorizers’ application processes vary from state to state and within states. Typically, authorizers want information about the proposed school’s curriculum, the applicant’s track record and capacities and the organizational and financial plans for the new school. Application processes include initial letters of intent, followed by long application processes and in-person interviews with representatives of the organizations applying. Some applicants also apply for federal or foundation grants to help them start charter schools, but they still must apply to their local authorizer to operate a school.
Authorizers approved about one-third of all charter school applications in the 2012–13 and 2011–12 school years, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that describes itself as “committed to advancing excellence and accountability in the charter school sector and to increasing the number of high-quality charter schools across the nation.”1 Authorizers monitor each charter school to determine whether it is meeting the goals it laid out in its charter application. After a certain number of years, authorizers conduct reviews and decide whether each school’s charter to operate should be renewed. If the charter is not renewed, the school is closed.
In its 2013 survey of charter school authorizers, NACSA found that only about 32 percent of charter school authorizers followed NACSA’s recommendation to grant charters a five-year contract term. Some terms were shorter and others were longer, but NACSA’s report on its survey does not indicate how much longer or shorter most charter terms were. NACSA’s report does note that Louisiana authorizers required three-year terms, while some authorizers in Arizona and Washington, D.C., required 15-year terms and some Colorado authorizers awarded operators terms lasting 30 years.2
NACSA believes that five years gives operators enough time to work out start-up problems and gives authorizers enough data on which to base their decisions about renewal. Given that only about a third of authorizers followed NACSA’s five-year recommendation, there appears to be a diversity of viewpoints on the appropriate length of charter contracts.
In 2011-12, about one-third of charter schools were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools, according to both the Commercialism in Education Research Unit of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.3
Some of these management organizations are nationally known, such as KIPP. Others are better known in some regions than in others, such as Success Academy, Green Dot, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Education.
Of these organizations that manage multiple charter schools, some are nonprofit and others are for-profit. The nonprofits are sometimes called charter management organizations (CMOs), while the for-profits are sometimes called education management organizations (EMOs).
The Commercialism in Education Research Unit of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder — which has expressed concern that “mixing commercial activities with public education raises fundamental issues of public policy, curriculum content, the proper relationship of educators to the students entrusted to them, and the values that the schools embody”— reported that the largest management organizations in 2013 included:4
The NEPC estimated that in 2011–12, about 36 percent of charter schools were run by either nonprofit or for-profit management organizations and about 44 percent of all charter students were enrolled at schools run by management organizations.6 The NEPC estimated that in 2011-12:7
Roughly similar estimates have been generated by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) — a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the quality, growth, and sustainability of charter schools.” The NAPCS estimated that 32.5 percent of charter schools were operated by management organizations in 2010-11, the most recent year for which it has data.8
While about a third of charter schools are operated by organizations that run multiple schools, approximately 67.5 percent of charter schools were freestanding or independently operated in 2010–11, according to the NAPCS.9
These freestanding charter schools are operated by organizations that operate only one school each. One team of academic researchers has grouped the organizations that operate freestanding charter schools into five broad categories:10
There are currently more freestanding charter schools than charter schools managed by organizations with multiple schools. However, data from the NAPCS show that the number of freestanding charter schools held fairly steady from 2007 to 2011. But there was growth in the number of schools managed by organizations with multiple schools.11 Therefore, freestanding charter schools are now serving a smaller proportion of all charter school students.
In the 2007–08 school year, more than 78 percent of charter schools were freestanding and only 11.5 percent were managed by nonprofit organizations with multiple schools. By 2010–11, the number of all charter schools had grown, including the number of freestanding charter schools. But only 67.5 percent of charter schools were freestanding in 2010–11, while more than 20 percent were managed by nonprofit organizations with multiple schools. In 2007–08, freestanding charter schools served 74 percent of all charter school students. In 2010–11, freestanding charter schools served only about 61 percent of all charter school students.12
The proportion of freestanding charter schools and students could be declining for a number of reasons. Freestanding charter schools face unique challenges, according to the Network of Independent Charter Schools, a nonprofit that describes its mission as helping “independent ‘mom and pop’ charter schools succeed.” Freestanding schools have limited access to financial capital compared with charter schools run by organizations with multiple schools. Their teachers and staff can be isolated from peers at other charter schools. They cannot draw on the expertise and other resources of large management organizations. They often attempt to address what they perceive as specific community needs, which can create strong pressure to succeed.13
It can be difficult to analyze student achievement at any one management organization because many of them operate multiple schools in multiple states with different systems for collecting and reporting data.
However, some researchers have asked whether students at charter schools run by management organizations perform better than students at freestanding charter schools. The 2013 edition of the ongoing CREDO study from Stanford University found no significant difference in reading and math score growth when it compared student achievement at freestanding charter schools with student achievement at charter schools run by management organizations from spring 2008 to spring 2011.14 For more detail, see the Student Achievement section.
CREDO studies charters and traditional public schools in 27 states, covering about 79 percent of public school students who had taken standardized tests and 95 percent of charter school students nationwide. Note that CREDO counts Washington, D.C., as a state and also counts New York City as a “state” separately from New York State.