The bowl or the meal? Charter schools could be both

At the intersection of two sets of challenges lies an untapped opportunity.

A growing number of parents are using education scholarship accounts to pay for individualized learning options for their children. They need a larger supply of options. Ideally, some of these options would come from schools and other providers with strong track records.

Charter schools need new avenues to grow and serve more families. Changing political and economic conditions limit their growth. Opposition among many school boards has made it harder to get new schools approved. A surge in property values, the rising cost of building materials, and the recent spike in interest rates have made acquiring land and building new facilities, longstanding pain points for charter schools, all the more daunting.

Here lies potential for fruitful collaboration.

Charter schools could offer services—unbundled courses, part-time enrollment—to families using ESAs.

This would help meet scholarship families’ demand for quality options. And it would offer charter school operators a new way to grow and serve more families, bypassing some of the usual hurdles such as building entire new schools or seeking permission to operate from local school boards.

Charter schools are public schools, and many ESA programs, including the nation’s largest, in Florida and Arizona, allow parents to use their scholarships to pay for public-school services. But the potential remains under-explored.

Offering courses to scholarship families would require charter schools to build new operational muscles.

They would have to calculate the unit cost of different services they might offer ESA families, like an individual course or a half day of enrollment or a package of support services. They would need to develop processes for invoicing families and accepting payments through scholarship platforms, as private schools are doing now. Among other things, they would likely need assurance that students who receive these a la carte services don’t count against their enrollment caps, and clarity about whether and how these students’ results would factor into the performance metrics they report to authorizers.

There are already models for this approach elsewhere in public education. Florida Virtual School operates as a school district, serving some students full-time and meeting the same obligations a district would for these students. It also serves students part-time, allowing them to take single courses and receiving pro-rata public funding. FLVS also offers courses to homeschoolers and students using ESAs. Other legal or regulatory clarifications might be helpful for brick-and-mortar public schools, including charters, looking to explore similar approaches.

While unbundled charter school courses could provide a new opportunity for growth and allow more students to access these schools on their terms, most of the conversations about charter schools and unbundling approach this issue from a different angle.

In a new article published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Christy Wolfe, a policy expert with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, describes the potential role of charter schools in a landscape of diverse learning opportunities with an elaborate metaphor inspired by the fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle. She likens different courses or learning experiences to the meat, rice or salsa customers might select for a burrito bowl. A charter school could serve as the container that holds these components together.

“Chipotlification ” is the term I think best describes the relatively recent “unbundling” or “assembly” trends in education reform discussions nationally and in some states. These ideas refer to allowing parents to assemble educational components of their child’s education to provide them with a personalized learning experience. Unlike those wonky terms, “Chipotlification” better communicates that when customizing education, you need a bowl (or a taco or a tortilla, depending on your preferences) to hold it all together. Or as the national education nonprofit organization Bellwether describes it in their work on assembly: the “comprehensive platform” that connects parents and families to learning providers.

In the education edition of Chipotlification, a charter school could be the bowl.

The model Wolfe describes has clear potential.

Parents often value help assembling different courses, curricula, support services and enrichment into a coherent program for their children. Wolfe names a few charter networks that have begun experimenting with this sort of model, and there are others. Tech Trep Academies provide a comprehensive platform for students to select diverse learning options. GEO Academies send students away from their campuses, supporting them as they complete courses at local colleges and career training programs. Some online schools in Arizona also serve as umbrella organizations for arrays of small, in-person microschools.

These models shoulder some of the burdens of navigating customized learning that would otherwise fall on families. For accountability hawks, they offer another clear benefit. Their students take state assessments, and their schools can, in theory, be held responsible for their results. In blue states where ESA programs aren’t politically viable, charter schools that serve as brokers of diverse learning experiences may offer the most feasible path to offering families the sort of individualized learning that ESAs provide.

Charter schools can and should find ways to “be the bowl.” Policymakers and authorizers should consider policies, like seat time flexibility, that help them serve as comprehensive platforms that connect students to diverse learning opportunities, some of which lie outside their walls.

Their courses could also be the carnitas—nutritious staples on the menu of learning options available to families who embrace unbundling.

Both opportunities deserve further exploration.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)