Political and Legal Analysis of the Charter School Marketplace
PI: Kenneth Wong, Brown University
Because state legislatures create, maintain, and modify the “charter school marketplace,” it is important to understand what influences them. It is also important to recognize the actual and potential role courts play in interpreting charter school statutes. Thus, the two primary research objectives of this project are to assess the internal consistency of state charter school laws, and to specify the connection between charter legal provisions and the state’s political economy. Its focus is on student achievement rates, state house indicators on partisan variation, teacher union strength, private school market share, state fiscal health, state innovation climate, leadership style, urbanicity, income and fiscal capacity, and racial and ethnic characteristics of the school age population.
Conventional wisdom is that charter laws are generally either weak or strong, and that strong laws will be associated with better charter outcomes in a state. Results from this study, however, suggest that there is as much, if not more, within-state law variation as there is between states. So the best comparisons to make may not be between states, but between schools and districts in the same state. Preliminary results also suggest that not all provisions are created equal, so they should not be expected to accurately predict achievement outcomes. State legislators are quite active in proposing amendments and new laws related to charter schools. The content of these bills demonstrates a wide array of possibilities for the future of school choice in each state, and it appears that both partisanship and constituent demographics significantly affect a legislator’s likelihood of proposing a charter school expansion bill.
Charter school politics, as the first wave of charter school literature found, are complicated and often working at cross purposes. Consistent with that finding, early analyses from this project show evidence of legislative and regulatory “layering,” whereby multiple institutions are operating separately, each with its own political logics, allies, and policy functions. Charter schools are the creation of competing political influences and multiple (or seemingly fragmented) institutional decisions. Thus, the implication is that policy layering tends to undermine an “ideal marketplace” for charter schools.