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Regulating Charter Schools

BOULDER, CO (August 23, 2016) – A fundamental premise of charter schools is that deregulation will free teachers, principals and schools to excel. Regulation or accountability in the conventional sense can cause gridlock and inefficiencies, so charter schools were designed to free up schools for innovation. Instead of conventional regulatory accountability, charters would be accountable through competition and the market model.

While there is certainly merit to these arguments—that bureaucratic regulation can be nonsensical and burdensome, and that deregulation can allow beneficial innovation—the picture is not so black-and-white. Regulations arise because taxpayers are understandably wary of abusive and incompetent uses of public funds, particularly in areas such as public schooling that play such a central role in our democracy.

In a brief released today, Regulating Charter Schools, William Mathis examines these tensions and the need for balance. “There is no perfect amount of regulation or deregulation, but we need to be regularly reassessing the situation and responding to clear problems,” explains Dr. Mathis.

He explores the research behind the elements of charter accountability, including academic performance, equal opportunity and non-discrimination, financial solvency and stability, and safety. He notes that the rapid growth of charter schools has come with charges of corruption, fiscal exploitation, weak academic performance and segregation. Because market-based accountability has proven insufficient, legislators have in recent years called for more external accountability and regulation.

Mathis concludes that charter schools should not be excepted from the requirement that public money comes with reporting, transparency and guidelines for spending and business practices. Financial regulation, he contends, is essential in the charter sector, as irregularities and bankruptcies have been common. He also notes the importance of ensuring that charter facilities comply with all requirements for safety and access.

The brief concludes with recommendations that cover both general process and operational requirements, stating that charter school regulations need to be periodically updated for policymakers to fulfill their obligation to protect the safety, welfare and educational entitlements of children.

Dr. Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. This brief is the one in a series of concise publications, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, that takes up a number of important policy issues and identifies policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

Find William Mathis’s brief on the NEPC website at:

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice ( 

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: