The charter-school quality agenda
We’ve seen big wins on the charter-school front over the last two years. Advocates in many states successfully eliminated or raised caps on new charters (New York, Massachusetts), created new statewide authorizers (Indiana), and unlocked resources for school facilities (D.C.). Each of these initiatives should lead to significant growth in the charter sector in the years ahead.
But expanding the reach of charters is only half of the equation. Ensuring their quality is even more important. On this front, state lawmakers should target efforts on three main policies, and follow the lead of those blazing each trail.
By far the most important thing states can do to promote school quality is to make sure that charter authorizers—those that charter, oversee, and, if necessary, shutter charter schools—have the incentives, skills, and tools to do their jobs well. States with strong authorizers—such as Massachusetts and New York—tend to boast high-quality charter schools. Those with lackluster authorizing practices have struggled.
Since the charter movement began, we have learned a great deal about what is required of effective authorizers (thanks, in part, to the great work done at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools). These authorizers are responsible, professional organizations that believe in charters but equally in student achievement. They have expert staffs. They have sufficient resources (via school fees or a state appropriation) to play their role competently. And they themselves are held to account for their performance and that of their schools. For example, the Ohio legislature recently passed a law that will bar authorizers from opening new schools if their current schools are particularly low-performing. That’s well worth trying elsewhere.
Which state statutes are particularly strong on charter school authorizing?
Minnesota, the state with the top-ranked charter law for two years straight, according to the NAPCS, provides a good primer. Authorizers are able to collect sufficient fees to oversee their charters effectively. Before sponsoring a charter, the state requires them to undergo a thorough vetting by the commissioner of education, and then submit to a state review of their school-evaluation practices every five years. At every step, from initial authorization to renewal or closure, clear and comprehensive procedures exist for relationships among state, authorizer, and charter. States that already boast high-quality authorizers may not need that level of prescription, but for jurisdictions with legitimate quality concerns, the Land of 10,000 Lakes offers a strong example.
Expanding the reach of charters is only half of the equation. Ensuring their quality is even more important.
Creating Incentives for the Replication of High-Quality Charter Schools
One of the most promising developments of recent years has been the rise of networks of high-performing charter schools. Policymakers would be smart to find ways to recruit these networks to their states—and to encourage the widespread replication of effective models. Here are some things states might do:
- Encourage districts to share facilities with high-performing charters. Ohio allows school districts to include high-performing charter schools’ test scores in their performance ratings—if they provide facilities to them. A win-win, this move eases the facilities challenges which often cause high-quality schools to pass up expansion or replication and offers districts a boost on their performance rating. Columbus Public Schools, for example, opened up space to a new KIPP school in part because of this incentive. New York City was able to lure several top-notch networks to Gotham by providing high-quality space. Especially when charters are under-funded, access to facilities can be a real incentive for high-achieving schools to come to town.
- Create a pipeline of talented teachers and leaders. As successful schools expand, they need access to a pool of great teachers and leaders in order to continue excelling. Streamlining licensure policies and recruiting non-traditional teachers from programs like Teach For America or The New Teacher Project benefit charter and district schools alike.
- Create “smart” caps. If policymakers are determined to limit the number of charter schools allowed in the state (we’d prefer no charter caps, but if they must), it’s important to make exceptions—“smart caps”—for excellent charter schools (from inside or outside the state) to expand and replicate. In Michigan, this means that high-performing charters can convert to “schools of excellence” after meeting rigorous criteria, freeing up slots for authorizers to sponsor new schools and replicate their success. In Connecticut, charter enrollment is restricted, but the state board can waive the caps for schools with a track record of success.
An Academic “Death Penalty” for Chronically Low-Performing Charter Schools
Finally, lawmakers need to get serious about instances of chronic failure in the charter sector. The fundamental theory of charter schools is that bad schools get fixed or get closed. Yet we’ve learned from experience that shuttering a bad charter school is just as politically challenging as closing a bad district school. If authorizers don’t have the fortitude or will to address school failure, state law must step do it for them.
Ohio (yes, Ohio again) provides a decent model for putting this strict accountability into practice. Since 2006, Buckeye charter schools in a persistent state of “academic emergency” (generally for three years) have been legally subject to automatic closure. This provision has already led to the shuttering of seventeen charters, with three more scheduled to close in June of 2012. Strict enforcement has coincided with better performance: The Ohio Department of Education reports that the percentage of charters on the state’s “Academic Watch” and “Academic Emergency” lists dropped from 64 percent in 2007-08 to 43 percent in 2010-11. That’s still too big a number, of course, but not as big as before.
The charter sector will never be 100 percent full of great schools. Nor should it be; the genius of chartering is the chance for innovators to try new approaches and sometimes fail. What’s critical is to put in place policies that expeditiously move the failed efforts off the stage and create room for stronger ideas to take their place. States: Get cracking!
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