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Charter Schools: An Important Partner Supporting Quality Pre-k

A growing number of charter schools across the country are offering high-quality pre-k programs, and charter schools can be a valuable source of pre-k capacity as states expand publicly funded pre-k. But in too many states a variety of policy barriers prevent charter schools from playing a role in state pre-k programs. In a new policy brief on the Democrats for Education Reform website, I argue that it's time to break down these barriers and build partnerships between the charter school and universal pre-k movements to support quality and alignment in early education.

The charter school and universal pre-k movements are two of the most dynamic movements in education today, and they are slowly changing the shape of public education in important ways. The pre-k movement is building new systems of public education at the state and local level to education 3 and 4 year-olds. At the same time, the charter school movement is building a system of new public schools operating independently of existing school district systems--often with an explicit mission to serve disadvantaged and minority students. Both movements are driven substantially by concerns about equity and a desire to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap. And both face similar challenges: growing the supply of high-quality providers, recruiting and developing human capital, obtaining and financing appropriate facilities, overcoming political opposition, ensuring quality across diverse providers.

Yet, even as they pursue complementary goals and face similar challenges, the charter school and universal pre-k movements operate on separate tracks, with little cooperation or exchange of ideas between the two sectors. That's unfortunate, because the two movements could learn a lot from one another's responses to their shared challenges, and could provide valuable support to each other. For instance, charter schools could be a valuable potential source of pre-k capacity to help states expand pre-k programs, and the pre-k movement could learn a lot from the charter school movement's experience with scaling up high-performing providers, or from charter school authorizers' work to ensure quality across diverse providers. At the same time, charter schools could learn a lot from the pre-k movement's advocacy efforts, and policies to incorporate charter schools into state pre-k programs could support growth and quality in the charter movement.

Moreover, both the pre-k movement and the charter school movement benefit from one another's success: Charter schools will be more able to meet their student achievement goals if the students they serve have had the benefit of high-quality pre-k experiences. And the pre-k movement will get better long-term results if charter schools can expand the supply of high-quality elementary schools serving pre-k students. Charter schools that offer pre-k can also provide an aligned PK-3 experience.

So why isn't there a stronger link between the charter school and pre-k movements? Largely because we still operate in silos when it comes to early education and school reform: Early education is in one silo, existing public school systems in another, and charter schools in a third--with very little communication or exchange of ideas between silos. One of our goals here at Early Ed Watch is to help break down those silos and support increased communication between early educators, public school systems, and charter public schools.

But another important reason for the divide between charter schools and pre-k advocates is that policies in many states prevent charter schools from offering state-funded pre-k programs. In New York State, officials have interpreted the state charter school law to exclude charter schools from participating in the state pre-kindergarten program. In other states, pre-k funds flow to school districts, but not to charter schools, so charter schools have access to pre-k funds only if school districts agree to include charters in pre-k funding. Many states provide only part of the cost of pre-k programs, and expect school districts to pay the rest out of local property taxes—but charter schools can’t raise funds from local property taxes, making it difficult for them to participate in these programs.

Many of the same policies that prevent charter schools from participating in state pre-k programs also have quality and other negative consequences for other pre-k providers--so both the charter movement and the pre-k movement have an incentive to address them.

In the new policy brief, I lay out several policy recommendations for state and federal policymakers to eliminate barriers to charter schools offering high-quality pre-k:

  • Eliminate state policies that bar charter schools from offering pre-k.
  • Allow charter schools to receive state per-pupil funds to educate 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • Allow charter schools equitable access to state and federal pre-k funds.
  • Ensure state pre-k programs provide adequate funding to support quality.
  • Include pre-k charters in the Federal Charter Schools Program.
  • Eliminate caps on the numbers of Charter Schools.
  • Build authorizer capacity in early education.

This recommendations can not only encourage more charter schools to offer high-quality pre-k--they can also help support quality and alignment for other publicly funded pre-k providers. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether state pre-k programs serve children in traditional public schools, community-based providers, or charter schools. What matters is that families have access to an array of good pre-k options across a diverse array of high-quality providers. The charter movement can be an important source of good pre-k providers, as well as offering strategies for states to incorporate diverse providers into their pre-k system in a variety of ways.

dfer-prek-briefing.pdf888.79 KB