Charter advocates should demand only the best

According to the newest assessment from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools regarding the charter sector’s share of the public school market, the number of school districts where at least 20 percent of students attend charters has increased about 350 percent since 2005. In thirty-two districts, at least one in five public school students is enrolled in a charter.

In New Orleans and Detroit (and, very soon, Washington, D.C.), the majority of public school pupils are charter students. The good news is that the top ten cities in terms of charter market share include some of the nation’s highest-performing charter sectors (New Orleans, D.C., and Indianapolis). The bad news is that some of the worst performers turn up on that list, too (namely, Philadelphia and three districts in Ohio, a state whose laggard charter performance has been well documented by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and my colleagues at the Fordham Institute).

When announcing this growth, NAPCS chief executive Nina Rees protested that nearly one million students are on charter waiting lists. Her lament is justified. But quantity and quality still aren’t matching up the way they should in this growing movement.

Two years ago, my Fordham colleagues Mike Petrilli and Ty Eberhardt also examined the progress of the charter sector but questioned its quality controls and urged charter leaders and policymakers to consider three main areas of reform: a) strengthening charter school authorizing, b) creating “smart caps” and other incentives for replicating high-quality schools, and c) instituting an “academic death penalty” for chronically failing charters.

With more markets turning charter-heavy these days, their suggestions are worth revisiting (and adding on to).

Strengthen charter authorizing

Unfortunately, as the charter movement scales up, we’re left with imperfect authorizing environments, as well as imperfect charter authorizers. Petrilli and Eberhardt argued, “Since the charter movement began, we have learned a great deal about what is required of strong charter school authorizers.” They were right, but the best authorizing policies remain theoretical.

Some suggestions from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are worth studying:

Ø  Authorizer accountability, whereby authorizers must affirm interest to become authorizers and be held accountable for the performance of schools in their portfolios

Ø  Adequate authorizer funding, which includes provisions for guaranteed funding from authorizer fees and public accountability for such spending

Ø  Performance-based charter contracts, whereby academic and operational performance is strictly, and objectively, judged.

Smart caps

Let us establish that it’s uncool to limit choices for households who have so few. But allow me to submit that charter “caps” have not been entirely evil.

Massachusetts, for instance, has had a cap on charter enrollment while creating some of the best charter schools the United States has ever seen. Arguably, the fact that the state’s education department has had to be persnickety about the charters it authorizes has heightened charter quality—and thus created better choices for more kids.

I won’t argue that states should try to unscramble an egg and institute a cap where there currently is none. But if policymakers want to place a limit on charters in their state, they should make allowances for high flyers—and they should make a cap generous enough so that promising charter start-ups don’t get left out. A “smart cap,” coupled with heightened authorizer accountability, would help ensure that more high-performing charters are serving more children.

The “death penalty”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo this fall shocked many educators in the Empire State when he said that all public schools should face a death penalty if they don’t shape up. “Don’t set us up for failure,” replied one superintendent. Such a response is laughable, because bad schools remain immortal—charter and traditional alike. If we’re serious about charter quality, then we should hew to the original mission of charter schooling: Give us the freedom, and hold us accountable for performance. The fact that so many poorly performing schools are capturing more of the public school market share in many cities makes the adoption of a death penalty that much more compelling.

Petrilli and Eberhardt argue, “If authorizers don’t have the fortitude or will to address school failure, state law must step into the breach.” Consistently failing schools should face automatic closure. The National Association for Charter School Authorizers has recently drawn attention to an initiative that aims to place one million students into 3,000 high-performing public charter schools. In addition to the human-capital investment necessary to attain such a goal, the worst schools (many of which have received too many second chances) would face certain death.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools would agree with much here. No advocate for charter schools is better positioned to insist on quality as the charter movement grows to scale in many cities. It shouldn’t merely just celebrate the growth of charters in many cities. It should demand only the best.

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