Charter School Prospects

Not all charter school news is good, in part because not all the schools are good. Recent state proficiency test scores for many Ohio charters, for example, were pretty disheartening. Everyone knows that Texas has a handful of inadequate charter schools. So are a few in the nation's capital. The time has surely come for charter fans and devotees to get harder-nosed about school quality, effectiveness and value added. It's no longer sufficient to suggest that any charter school is inherently better than no charter school. That stance is unhelpful to the long-term vitality of the charter movement. More importantly, it's unhelpful to kids who need good schools. We must insist that charter schools deliver solid results for children and cost-effectiveness for taxpayers.

But there's a lot of good charter news, too, and some illuminating recent studies. The Goldwater Institute's sophisticated examination of Arizona charters found mostly solid results. So did the Texas Public Policy Foundation's study of Lone Star State schools, especially the "at risk" charters serving the neediest kids.

This month, the U.S. Department of Education issued two long-in-the-making charter studies, both spin offs of the Congressionally mandated National Study of Charter Schools. These are important both because of their national database and because of the savvy and impartiality of the authors.

RPP International produced "Challenge and Opportunity: The Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts." And the University of Washington's Paul Hill and colleagues at the Center on Reinventing Public Education wrote "A Study of Charter School Accountability." Both are available on the Education Department's website at (respectively) www.ed.gov/pubs/chartimpact/ and www.ed.gov/pubs/chartacct/.

There's much to be learned from them.

The central finding of the "impact" study is that competition from charters is indeed causing school districts to change. The researchers examined 49 districts in five states with sizable charter programs. Every single district "reported impacts from charter schools and made changes in district operations, in the district educational system, or in both areas." Besides the obvious budgetary effects, "Nearly half of district leaders reported becoming more customer service oriented, increasing their marketing and public relations efforts, or increasing the frequency of their communication with parents." What's more, "Most districts implemented new educational programs, made changes in educational structures in district schools, and/or created new schools with programs that were similar to those in the local charter schools." That doesn't mean the districts like it. Many view charters as the source of a challenge they wish would go away. Many are still doing their best to throttle the charter movement. But like it or not, they're also responding to competition, mostly in constructive ways. And in some cases the district has come to view charter schools as an opportunity that can help it do a better job.

The researchers are cautiously bullish: "[T]his report provides some evidence to substantiate the claims of charter advocates that charter schools may be producing ripple effects beyond the schoolhouse doors. However, the rapidly increasing number of charter schools and the propensity of districts to respond by making operational and educational changes suggests that the ripple effects of charter schools will continue to increase-perhaps eventually inducing broader, long lasting systemic change."

The "accountability" study is low key, too, but generally positive. The authors view charters as laboratories for accountability-in-general, something that the standards-based reform movement will benefit from as more is learned about what incentives and structures induce schools to improve.

The researchers were underwhelmed by some of the "external" accountability as practiced by the public bodies that grant charters to schools and are supposed to oversee their performance. Although the start-from-scratch entities created for this purpose (e.g. specialized state or university offices) "learn their jobs relatively quickly," in those instances where a charter is overseen by the school district, they found, "district offices have trouble breaking long-established habits of detailed compliance-oriented oversight." This is worth keeping in mind as one weighs the school establishment's plaint that only local districts should be allowed to issue charters.

The research team found that, while "Charter schools' dependency on donors, lenders, and sources of outside assistance brings advantages and risks,...in general such voluntary external partnerships seem to strengthen the school's academic performance and reinforce its focus on quality instruction." (It may be disingenuous to term such relations "voluntary"! Most charters of my acquaintance have little choice in this regard.)

Perhaps the most useful intellectual contribution of this study is the authors' development of the concept they term "internal accountability," a worthy refinement of what's more commonly called "marketplace" accountability. It's well known that a charter school must satisfy its customers or in time it won't have any. But Hill and company turn this into a more interesting idea, more akin to James Coleman's notion of "social capital" in a school or a child's life. "Internal" accountability, as they see it, involves the maintenance of "productive relationships among teachers, students, parents, and financial supporters." It hinges on the "belief that the school's performance depends on all adults working in concert, leading to shared expectations about how the school will operate, what it will provide children, and who is responsible for what." The authors warn, though, that a surfeit of external accountability, especially when it takes the form of rule-based compliance, can distract the school team and undermine the creation of solid internal accountability.

Much fodder here for thought, and a welcome reminder that we're accumulating important knowledge about charter schools, knowledge that, properly applied, can strengthen these schools while brightening our prospects for reforming all the others.

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