Charter School Autonomy: A Half-Broken Promise

Dana Brinson, Jacob Rosch
Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Public Impact
April 2010

A primary justification for charter schools is the need for freedom from bureaucracy and regulation. In return, charters agree to be held accountable for their academic, fiscal, and operational performance. But on the whole, charter schools across the country have not been granted the autonomy necessary to do what’s best for their students. That’s the main finding from a study released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Charter School Autonomy: A Half-Broken Promise.

Researchers from Public Impact analyzed and scored schools in 26 states based on the level of autonomy they are granted by the charter contracts they have with their authorizer and the state and federal policies that impact them (for example, federal “highly qualified teacher” provisions add red tape). Giving charter schools grades for how well authorizers (aka, sponsors) and states do in holding up their end of the bargain (granting autonomy) is akin to grading students on how well their teachers equip them to succeed.

Academic performance of charters is a separate matter and is not taken up in the report. The reason to measure autonomy is simple – it’s a necessary condition if we expect charters to deliver solid academic results. As the report sums up brilliantly, “To deny charters that freedom is akin to tying one arm behind the back of a prize fighter. Or forcing Monet to paint in mittens.”

Charter schools nationally received an average score of C+, with scores ranging from A to F in various states. In the Buckeye State, scores among charters averaged to a B. Ohio’s lowest scoring areas, in terms of the autonomy extended to charters via state law, fell under “staffing.” Ohio’s charters are subject to the same certification regulations as their district counterparts, and some components of the salary schedule or retirement plan are dictated to the schools. In managing their own curriculum, schedules, calendar, school boards, and budgets, Ohio’s charters received top points for autonomy.

Despite Ohio receiving a B overall, one particular finding from the report should raise caution. The researchers found that school district authorizers placed the most burdens on charter schools – more than any other type of authorizer.

One-fifth of Ohio’s charter schools are sponsored by local school districts, and we’ve already seen districts act reluctant in granting maximum freedoms to their sponsored schools. Case in point is the recent announcement that two of the top district-run charters in the state are closing, in large part due to pressure exerted by the Ohio Department of Education on the Upper Arlington Board of Education to keep the charters and the district operating as distinct and separate entities. The district prefers to fold the two charter schools into existing programming rather than let them operate independently, a perfect illustration of how districts are more comfortable putting “mittens” on schools than in granting full autonomy.

The issue of charter school autonomy is especially relevant in Cleveland, where district CEO Eugene Sanders has proposed turning some failing schools over to charter operators as part of his district transformation plan. The schools would be maintained within in a district-overseen portfolio of schools, and therefore could face constraints from the district that inhibit their ability to operate with a level of freedom necessary to achieve at high levels. Handicapping charter schools through regulation or giving them faux autonomy undermines their purpose and diminishes their capacity to innovate and raise student achievement, and this report sheds great light on this important issue.

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