‘More’ is the operative word for building a high-quality charter sector

Kara Kerwin

Here follows the eleventh entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Mike posed an extremely important question at the start of this wonk-a-thon: “How to build a high-quality charter school sector?”

With now over a million students on charter school waiting lists, we reformers ought to be seeking the answer to this question with a sense of urgency.

Simply stated, we need more choices in the type of education available to families. We need more children sitting in more seats in more schools made available by more choice. We need more public discussions about school choice, truthful and deeper conversations, in forums that matter.

We need more people—moms and dads, community groups, elected officials—calling for more options in education. And we need to give more power to parents over their own children’s education.

Unfortunately, too few activities in today’s education-reform movement, especially when it comes to charter schools, have focus primarily on expanding all options available to schoolchildren and expanding parents’ access to those options.

Many current policies, proposals, and practices artificially and unnecessarily constrain growth and deter investment in schools of choice. Some risk is inherent in innovation and growth. There is greater risk—especially to our nation’s children—from setting limits on the expansion of school choice.

It is time to push the charter school movement to a new level
 of maturity that encourages and ensures accelerated growth, one that allows charter schools of all types to play a more central role in school reform.

But we can’t do that if the discourse around charter schools is narrowly focused on closing down schools. We’ve all heard this before: “There are a lot of lousy charter schools out there.” Starting with the premise that they will fail does nothing to address the need for change or bolster support for well-intentioned legislation. Such debates only fuel our opposition, limit innovation, and push the charter school movement in a direction that turns us into the same thing we sought to fix.

But the reality is that schools, whether public charter or traditional public, are only as good as the laws that govern them—and especially how they are implemented. Most in the charter sector find ways to success regardless of such laws, restrictions, etc. For example, on paper, Massachusetts’ charter law doesn’t necessarily hold up to a perfect model, but Boston’s strong charter sector is the result of great implementation and people.

The real truth is this: there are a lot of lousy state charter school laws out there that need an overhaul to ensure student success.

Accountability is the hallmark of charter schools! It’s why the concept was born in the first place. And while opponents and charter supporters alike continue to claim that charters are not being held accountable, our data proves otherwise—especially in states with strong and clear charter laws and independent authorizers.

Unfortunately, there are bad apples that persist, remaining open year after year, but I will argue it is the fault not of the charter school movement or concept but of lousy laws that have failed to ensure accountability and success and have allowed the status quo to game the charter concept.

Authorizers matter, and in states with truly independent and multiple authorizers, accountability is surely at work.

It’s no wonder then, that the states which lead CER’s national rankings for creating new opportunities for students and having successful charters also have independent, multiple authorizers, almost all with universities as part of the portfolio and not subject to state education department oversight, either in an advisory or control capacity. These exemplary states with these institutions include New York, with the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute; Michigan, where public universities, including the impressive Central Michigan University, can authorize charter schools; and Washington, D.C., home to the only completely independent charter board in the nation, the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

In fact, the highest charter school and enrollment-growth numbers are in jurisdictions with strong charter laws. Strong charter laws feature independent, multiple authorizers, few limits on expansion, and high levels of school autonomy. In 2012–13, 335 additional charter campuses were established in states with charter laws and policies graded an A or B on CER’s annual ranking, while only thirteen additional campuses were created in states rated D or F. These numbers echo the growth differential observed in previous years. If we measure charter growth by the number of students enrolled, there currently are 1,335,408 in states that CER gave an A or B rating. Only 56,046 students attend charters in jurisdictions rated D or F.

Since 1996, CER has been evaluating charter school laws, not just on the merits of policy but how those laws actually result in great outcomes for kids. Policymakers and advocates often overlook the correlation between effective charter schools and the law of the states in which they operate. Additionally, the press often overlooks the details of a particular charter law in its coverage of charter accountability. But the reality is that strong state charter school laws help to create the highest-quality charter schools. In states with multiple and independent authorizers, stronger, more objective oversight is used to ensure that successful charter schools remain open and those that fail to perform are closed.

Building a high-quality charter school sector must first start with addressing the need for more and greater choices for parents and students, ensure accountability by enacting more laws that provide meaningful and objective oversight, allow schools and educators the autonomy to focus more on student outcomes, and make sure schools and students alike are funded more equitably.

Kara Kerwin is the president of the Center for Education Reform.