Over the past decade, champions of bold K-12 education reform, ourselves included, have often termed charter schools the most promising innovation. It's fitting that this week-National Charter Schools Week-educators, reformers, and policymakers are examining where the charter movement stands and where it's headed.
Here's what we see: charters are educationally diverse (though they can be grouped into useful categories). That they face severe obstacles both financial (see Charter School Finance: Inequity's Next Frontier) and political (here's one such example). And perhaps most importantly, that authorizing-the act of actually chartering or licensing these schools-is the key to creating high quality charter schools (see our new report, Trends in Charter School Authorizing). Indeed, chartering is the most promising educational innovation of our time-and the one that could have the greatest impact if embraced and replicated by the traditional public-education system.
To be sure, there's little you can find in charter schools that doesn't also exist somewhere in the vast and varied world of public and private schools. But the process of authorizing new public schools-allowing them to open, overseeing their progress, shutting them down if necessary, but not actually running them, as traditional school districts do-is entirely new. This radically different approach to school regulation points to a promising "third way" between the laissez-faire approach of most voucher programs and the crippling red tape of the traditional school system.
Getting the balance right is hard but essential if charter schools are to thrive, and if the charter movement is to fulfill its great promise.
How many of today's charter "authorizers" are doing it right? To find out, we surveyed all of them and asked how they tackled their jobs. The results are illuminating.
We learned, for example, that when authorizers don't renew a charter school's contract, it's usually for academic reasons. This is how it's supposed to be but also flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Charter friends and critics alike have said in recent years that authorizers don't take strong enough action to terminate academically failing schools. Yet our data indicate that's exactly what they're doing. A good thing, too; the charter movement's credibility depends on bad schools not continuing.
As for closing schools before their contracts are up, authorizers typically act not because of low test scores but because schools are self-destructing financially or organizationally. This, too, is appropriate. Raising student achievement takes time and except in unusual circumstances new schools deserve the 3-5 years of their contracts to prove that they can do this. But if a school is falling apart or children are in harm's way, patience is not in order.
Authorizers are also becoming choosier on the front end, when deciding whether to grant new charters. Over the past two years, they've become significantly more selective, lowering the national approval rate from 70 percent in 2003 to approximately 50 percent today. Contrary to what we expected to find, state-mandated caps on the creation of new schools turn out not to be the main reason for this; authorizers in states both with and without caps have reduced their approval rates similarly.
This is healthy, too. It's hard to run a successful charter school and, while authorizers need to stay open to promising but unproven approaches, they are right to be skeptical about half-baked ideas or wannabe school leaders who lack the educational or business acumen to get the job done. It's important that authorizers feel comfortable saying no.
This study's other major finding is less surprising and less welcome: almost half of all authorizers practice limited oversight of their schools, demonstrating scant concern either for school quality (by rigorously screening applicants, holding schools accountable for student achievement, etc.) or for compliance (by ensuring fiduciary responsibility, enforcing federal laws, etc.). On the other end of the spectrum, 31 percent of authorizers are aggressive about both quality and compliance.
Only one in ten authorizers practices the "tight-loose" model upon which the original charter concept rests: a strong focus on quality and results coupled with a more laid back approach towards compliance and procedure. What happened to the mantra, "accountability in return for autonomy"?
What happened was that reality hit hard. From our experience authorizing charter schools in Ohio, we speedily saw that we needed to be as concerned about the niggling details of finance and regulation as about achievement and accountability. After all, if a school is accused of fiscal malfeasance or procedural missteps, the political reaction can be swift and severe. Thus, authorizers committed to quality education soon learn to be attentive to compliance issues, too, even those issues that the legislature should have exempted charter schools from.
The least enthusiastic (if most numerous) authorizers of all are traditional school districts. Only a handful of them are serious about quality and compliance and practically none would recognize the "tight-loose" model if it landed in their laps. Lawmakers need to understand this, because the public-education establishment ceaselessly presses them to restrict authorizing to local school systems.
Who takes authorizing more seriously? After reviewing all seven types of authorizers, we conclude that nonprofit organizations and independent chartering boards-like the one Congress created in the District of Columbia-show the greatest promise. They engage in chartering by choice, not coercion, have ample resources (financial and human) to draw from, and can skillfully navigate the treacherous politics of charter authorizing. As more of them jump into the chartering fray let us hope they continue to succeed at scale.
Now that we know that many authorizers neglect their fundamental oversight duties, it is clear that legislators should give this weighty responsibility to organizations that want it and take it seriously. We wouldn't force educators to start a charter school against their will; the same rule should apply to authorizers. That's the best way to make sure that the charter school movement grows in quality and quantity in the years to come-and that National Charter Schools Week is worth celebrating.
This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2006 edition of National Review Online.