Charter lessons for school choice, including accountability via authorizers

Yesterday at AEI’s terrific conference on “encouraging new and better schools” via school-choice programs, I presented a paper on what the recently resurgent private-school-choice movement can learn from the 20 years of successes and struggles of charter schooling.

I argued that three lessons from chartering ought to be utilized by choice advocates. The first is school networks. In the charter sector, these are generally called “CMOs” (charter-management organizations); in the private-schools world, they’re not called anything because they don’t yet exist (with just a few exceptions).

By adopting the school-network model, instead of remaining highly independent, private schools could realize economies of scale and huge benefits related to human capital. I also hypothesize that networks would help spawn a private-schools-support ecosystem in the nonprofit sector, akin to the ecosystem that has been developed around charters.

The second lesson relates to school incubation. A number of organizations across the nation have as a central mission helping charters get off the ground. They primarily work in four areas—helping to identify and train school founders and leaders; providing start-up funds to approved schools; giving strategic advice and support during the application process and after the school’s doors open; and advocating for improved policies. Private-school incubators could serve the very same functions, helping to create new, high-quality private schools.

The third lesson is accountability via authorizers. Early choice programs had few if any quality controls, meaning many low-performing private schools participated. Newer programs have developed accountability systems similar to those for traditional public schools: the state department of education oversees the choice program and participating private schools take state tests, receive letter grades from the state systems, and are subject to consequences based on those grades.

The former tack is no good for kids. Yes, I’m a big believer in the benefits of empowering low-income families with educational choice, but I’m not interested in having disadvantaged boys and girls transfer from lousy district schools to lousy private schools.

The latter could have the effect of homogenizing participating private schools, compelling them to look and act like the public schools families are seeking to exit.

My recommendation is to create single-purpose private-school authorizers in states with choice programs. These would be state-approved entities whose only job would be to oversee private schools participating in public programs. An interested school would apply to the authorizer, making the case that it is academically, operationally, and financially sound.

If approved, a school would negotiate a school-specific performance contract with the authorizer. Performance metrics would vary from school to school, based on each school’s mission and approach. One school might use state test scores, graduation rates, and student surveys; another might use a nationally norm-referenced test, AP and SAT scores, and measures of civic engagement.

Schools would be monitored and go through a regular renewal cycle, through which the authorizer would determine if the school had meet its targets—leading to renewal or non-renewal decisions.

I first argued for private-school authorizers in my book The Urban School System of the Future. But I re-raise the idea of private-school authorizers here because there is a simmering feud among choice advocates about accountability.

Jay Greene and others say no to testing; some in this camp think parental choice (and the competitive forces it begets) is enough to maintain quality. Some also argue that the recent spate of heavy-handed edu-policies (some cite NCLB, teacher-evaluation reform, ESEA-waiver requirements) should make us leery of wading into the world of private-school regulation. Finally, some on this side would argue that if we’re to require testing in scholarship schools (or mandate other performance metrics), they should only be used for transparency (informing consumers), not accountability (enabling state action).

Others, like Mike Petrilli, believe that participating schools should be held accountable by using performance information. Fordham’s recently released (and very good) Public accountability and private-school choice toolkit recommends that all students participating in a scholarship or tax-credit program take state tests and that participating schools disclose those results and be held accountable through the state’s use of an interesting “sliding-scale” approach. (The publication also neatly summarizes the accountability provisions of existing choice programs and convincingly explains why accountability is important.)

I’m closer to Mike’s position, but I get where opponents are coming from. I want to preserve private schools’ independence and individuality, and I worry that too much government monkeying around will do harm.

But evidence from the Milwaukee voucher program (and data in my book) shows that the quality of schools participating in these public programs varies widely. As a matter of personal principle, I want to keep kids out of bad schools, so I want to keep bad schools out of these programs.

I also want to keep these schools out as a matter of pragmatic politics,. Their performance drags down the overall results of these programs, which puts the programs themselves in jeopardy.

I think the authorizer model is the right middle ground. It would expand the educational options available to disadvantaged kids, ensure that participating schools are high performing, and allow private schools to maintain their distinctive characteristics.

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