My student, Ian Kingsbury, will be presenting a paper next week at the annual meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy examining factors that help explain which applications to operate charter schools are more likely to be approved. He is still in the early stages of this project and I’m sure will benefit from feedback on how to improve the work, but he has already analyzed nearly 400 applications to operate charter schools in 7 states. His basic findings, which seem unlikely to change as he gets feedback, should surprise no one but should shock everyone interested in charter schools — the more burdensome the regulatory environment for approving charters, the less likely charters led by minority applicants are to be approved by authorizers.
Using the score that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) gives to each state’s charter policies as a proxy for regulation, Ian finds that for each 1 point increase in a state’s NACSA score (on a scale from 0 to 33), African-American and Hispanic-led charter applications are 1.7 percentage points less likely to be approved. Given that one state included in the study has had a NACSA score as low as 9 and other states, like Indiana and Nevada, have a 33, the variation in regulatory environments Ian observed is associated with about a 41 percentage point difference in the probability that minority-led charter applications would be approved.
Of course, the charter regulations favored by NACSA, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, and most of the charter establishment are meant to promote quality. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that these regulations are in fact associated with higher quality charter schools. But they clearly make it harder for charter applications to get approved, especially for minority-led charter applicants. Even when Ian controls for whether the minority-led charter applicants attended more selective colleges or were affiliated with CMOs/EMOs, which might be proxies for the quality of those applications, minority-led applicants were still 1.7 percentage points less likely to get approved for each 1 point increase in NACSA score. In other words, if the purpose of regulations is quality control, those regulations still tend to keep out minority-led charter schools even after adjusting for reasonable proxies of the quality of those proposed charter schools.
This pattern of regulations in the name of quality posing a disproportionate barrier to minorities without actually being related to quality should sound familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the issue of occupational licensure. A variety of groups, from the Obama White House to the Institute for Justice, have noted that raising requirements to enter many occupations has been an important barrier to opportunity, especially for disadvantaged groups. Requiring people to spend 2,100 hours and about $22,000 to obtain a cosmetology license before they can braid hair has little to do with quality but is an important obstacle to opportunity. The same can be said of the type of regulations favored by NACSA and the charter establishment — they have little to do with quality but seem to be large obstacles to minority operated charter schools.
Keeping out minority-led charter schools has potentially serious educational and political implications. There is some evidence that minority students fare better when educators are of their same race/ethnicity. Minority-led charter schools may be more likely to provide this type of educational benefit for minority students. In addition, excluding minority leaders of charter schools severely damages the political prospects for charter schools by making minority community leaders significantly less invested in the growth and success of the charter sector.
If any of you will be at the Association for Education Finance and Policy conference next week, I would encourage you to stop by Ian’s panel on Thursday (March 15) at 10:15. While Ian’s project is not finished, the evidence is becoming clear enough that NACSA and the rest of the charter establishment need to explain why the policies they favor have such a negative effect on minority-led charter schools. And if they are going to defend that negative effect by claiming that the policies they favor promote quality, they need to provide evidence to support that claim. The way it looks now, the types of regulations favored by NACSA and others seem to just keep minorities out without producing any increase in quality.
Update — I’ve added a link to the paper, which is available here.