Could “micro-charters” be a way to fuel charter-school growth?

Charter schools are booming nationally. With 443 charters opening in 2009-10 alone, they grew 6.2 percent during that school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But this growth isn’t enough, some say — while others are quick to remind us that not all of the new charters are of high quality. Oft-cited research from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford found that only 17 percent of charter schools in the country significantly outperformed their traditional public-school counterparts. These top charter schools reached about 272,000 children in 2009-10, according to the Progressive Policy Institute. To put that in perspective, about 50 million children are enrolled in U.S. schools — 10 million of whom live in poverty.

“The number of children served by the best charter schools is far to low,” concludes a new report by the Progressive Policy Institute. The paper, “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best,” outlines several ways that high-quality charters can grow even faster based on successful private-sector practices.

Among the most intriguing ideas are the concepts of “micro-reach” and “micro-chartering,” in the words of authors, Public Impact’s Emily Ayscue Hassel, Bryan Hassel and Joe Ableidinger.

In “micro-reach,” an existing charter management organization (CMO) starts a relationship with a teacher who works in a regular school district but who wants to use the CMO’s program in his or her classroom and partake in the CMO’s professional development. Bryan Hassel compared it to how Starbucks sells its products not just in its own stores but also in grocery stores, on airplanes and at the local Barnes & Noble. It’s a way to “reach customers without setting up a whole new school,” he said.

In the “micro-chartering” scenario, an individual teacher could get a charter for his or her classroom. Or a community organization with 40 kids in its part-time after-school program could get a micro-charter to work with them on a full-time basis.

Such arrangements would allow for “much more [and] quick accountability,” Hassel said. “Since it’s not a whole school – that whole apparatus – it’s not as big of a deal to withdraw the charter.”