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Understanding Charter School Laws and How They are Ranked

What you need to know for effective policymaking.

In the wake of dozens of state and local officials seeking clarification over best practice charter school laws, it’s important to understand the context for the Center for Education Reform (CER)’s 2013 Charter School Law Rankings, and how it fits with other evaluations now being issued by other organizations with a concentration in similar areas.

Major education reform groups have begun to issue rankings of states and state policy on a variety of measures — from teacher quality to online learning to charter schools. It’s clear, as we’ve pointed out, that all of these add up to a cumulative GPA of sorts for states. The Center recognizes the variety in different issue areas, and has sought to bring context to a state’s GPA through The Parent Power Index©, which provides a composite score for each state for key elements of power.

However, when organizations conflict in their assessments of critical reform efforts, it’s important to be clear on where the conflict lies, particularly given legislators confusion over whether their work is producing sound results. Our colleagues at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) use a very different set of criteria to measure a charter school law than CER.

For example, while we both agree that Minnesota deserves top-billing (1st by NAPCS, 2nd in CER’s analysis), both Maine and Washington, which NAPCS places 2nd and 3rd respectively, cannot possibly be models others should emulate.

First, Washington State only passed its law in 2012, and it has yet to be implemented. While NAPCS praises the nature of the authorizer, it concludes it is independent from other state structures (a value CER ranks high on its rankings), the fact is that state actors are currently in disagreement over how to even organize the commission, and a lack of clarity in the law is resulting in conflicting sentiment about how independent this entity really can be.

Strong laws result in strong schools, a conclusion we’ve made in 14 annual evaluations of charter laws. States that have truly independent and preferably multiple authorizers, which afford schools a high degree of autonomy, and equitable or near equitable funding grow and nurture high quantities of high quality schools. State laws that vest authority in existing power structures for charter schools, and that are unclear about authority, funding and freedom compromise individual efforts, and quality authorizing.

The charter law for the District of Columbia (ranked 1st by CER, 17th by NAPCS), for example, has created a separate and distinct agency over which neither the mayor, the state superintendent, nor the city council has any legal authority. Its independence as a board is unique because the board is seated by a process involving recommendations by the federal education secretary, with a final choice by the mayor. In addition, the DC Charter Board has enrolled nearly 46% of all DC students in successful charters, both because it is independent and because the law limits the imposition of work rules; allows school leaders the freedom they deserve and the accountability they embrace; provides facilities assistance and a nearly equitable funding stream; and puts trust in an authorizing and accountability system that removes the entrenched bias of traditional school administrators.

Maine’s law (ranked 28th by CER and 2nd by NAPCS) authorizes a semi-independent commission, which is so closely defined in terms of member composition and selection, and how many schools can be approved (only ten schools over ten years), giving little incentive to really find and create new charter schools. In January, the Maine Charter Schools Commission, created in 2011, turned down four out of five in the latest round of charter applicants. Governor Paul LePage has accurately criticized the commission for being hostile towards the very organizations it was set up to create, stating, “This is truly a dereliction of duty. What we are talking about is a Commission moving far too slowly and putting political favors ahead of the needs of our children.”

The Center has regularly ranked states with independent authorizers highly for demonstrating the ability to shepherd the creation of strong, quality schools. But often laws can define an independent authorizer in one way but not be clear on lines of authority, giving license to traditional government education authorities to usurp power. Such precedents in states from Idaho to Maine make it clear that the only truly independent authorizers are those that are not connected at all to state and local education agencies.

Because NAPCS uses its model law as a basis for most of its ranking, it ranks high any state that has a commission model like Maine, despite no evidence that such an entity has provide effective governance of charter schools which result in quality opportunities for students. Idaho is an example that demonstrates the point. It has a commission that has become more and more intertwined with the State board of education and more bureaucratic, and less concerned with outcomes, as a result.

In most cases, universities have proven to be the best authorizers, combining existing higher education entities with an infrastructure that is accustomed to public and legislative scrutiny with creating new innovations in K-12. They stand as a blueprint in the Center’s model legislation. Michigan (ranked 4th by CER, 15th by NAPCS) permits its public universities, such as the highly regarded Central Michigan University, to authorize and oversee most charters, although districts may do the same.

While most states’ laws are strong-to-average, the majority of states lack the components necessary for successful charter school policy implementation. Conclusions about student achievement across state lines is not feasible because state laws differ greatly in how schools are permitted to seek and get authorization, the degree of autonomy they have, and how much public funding is permitted, despite research entities like CREDO issuing reports concluding otherwise.

However, there is a direct correlation between states with multiple authorizers and higher student achievement. Documented evidence confirms that the models for charter school law of New York, Michigan, Minnesota and DC, for example, give life to increased student achievement, surpassing all comparable public schools in those states.

Since 1993, The Center’s research on laws and legislation has demonstrated that great laws, modeled after the components noted in our ranking, produce a successful array of charter opportunities for families and students. New state proposals should be modeled after success, not theory.

To learn more about CER’s state rankings and model legislation, please visit:

ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: Charter School Law Rankings & Scorecard: The Rationale Behind the Rankings

The Center’s research team is also available for bill drafting and bill review. Contact us at for more information.