The half-broken promise of charter school autonomy

Nearly twenty years ago, legislators in Minnesota birthed the charter-school movement swaddled in a “grand bargain": These innovative public schools would deliver solid academic results in return for the freedom to do it their own way.

In recent years, the policy community has focused almost all of its attention on the results side of this pact. Meaning loads of studies, policy briefs, webinars, conference events, blog posts, tweets—you name it—have addressed “charter school performance.”

Indeed, results are what matters in the end. But the essential theory of charter schooling is that schools’ results are apt to be better if those running and working in them are free to produce them in the ways that they think best—and in ways that may differ widely from school to school.

So what about the autonomy side of the bargain? Are charter schools receiving the freedoms they were promised in the areas that matter most, even as they are held accountable for their results (and, of course, not spared a handful of immutable obligations, such as financial controls, civil rights, and building safety)?

This is the core question that we asked the experts at Public Impact to answer in Fordham’s latest study, Charter School Autonomy: A-Half-Broken PromiseAnalysts Dana Brinson and Jacob Rosch examined charter laws in twenty-six states that are home to more than 90 percent of America’s charter schools. They also inspected charter contracts for 100 schools associated with the country’s most active authorizers. (These authorizers, which number fifty, oversee nearly half of U.S. charter schools.) They interviewed “insiders” associated with the most and least autonomous schools in the sample.

In the end, individual schools (which are named, and which include two Ohio charters authorized by Fordham) were scored on a scale from zero (least freedom) to 100 (most freedom); points were then turned into traditional letter grades. (Note that we’re not grading the schools themselves; their grades reflect how much autonomy they’ve been granted by their states and authorizers.)

The key finding is more than a little worrying: America’s typical charter school today lacks the autonomy it needs to succeed. On our grading scale, the degree of freedom it has been granted amounts to a C+, once federal, state, and authorizer impositions are considered. For some schools, the outlook is far brighter, but for many it’s dreadfully dim, with way too many charters in the F range.

Not surprisingly, states vary greatly. Though the average state earns an encouraging B+, grades for charter autonomy range from A to F. Arizona, California, Texas, and the District of Columbia, for example, provide generous and much-needed autonomy, while states like Maryland, New Mexico, and Wisconsin—in the words of our analysts—“tie the hands of charters with their overly restrictive statutes.”

Then there’s the issue of authorizer contracts, which add another layer of restrictions. On average, they drop schools’ grades to B-. (Federal policy and other state and local statutes push it down further to the aforementioned C+.) School district authorizers are especially burdensome, placing more restrictions on charter schools than any other category of authorizer. Their pet restrictions include forcing schools to adopt the district’s discipline policies, follow a particular curriculum, or abide by standard practice when allocating budget dollars. In the end, though, most burdensome to charters are teacher certification rules, many of them a product of states’ interpretations of the federal “Highly Qualified Teachers” mandate.

Still and all, this study yielded some surprisingly good news, too. In the two realms of autonomy that matter most to building leaders—control over staffing and instruction—most charters enjoy considerable freedom (aside, that is, from teacher certification).

The takeaway here is that charter schools enjoy substantial freedom in some places to do their best but too many—especially those authorized by school districts—are shackled with the rules and regulations that have left so many traditional public schools dispirited and ineffectual.

We do not claim that autonomous charters are necessarily great schools. (Some states that score high on autonomy have relatively low performing charters—and vice versa.) Nor do we assert that charter schools should be freed from fundamental obligations (e.g., not to discriminate, not to expose their pupils to dangerous adults, etc.). Charters, too, must be responsible and accountable. But let’s also understand that for them to deliver the results we believe they are capable of, they need the freedom to be different, to select their own teams, design and deploy their own curricula, operate on their own calendars—basically the freedom to govern themselves. And what this study shows is that today too few of America’s charter schools enjoy enough of that freedom.

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