Depolarizing the charter school debate

Getty Images/Martin Barraud

Alex Medler

Focusing on specific challenges would improve today’s polarized fight over charter school oversight, in which name calling too often replaces the demanding work of understanding each other or solving shared problems. In previous rounds of charged conflict, I have found that shared work is the best remedy for ideological polarization.

Indeed, on the ground, the messy work of charter school policy and authorizing is rarely accomplished through strict adherence to ideology. Concepts and ideology considered without real-world applications tend to feel hollow. Most of the time, decisions are made by local people working to solve common problems. And whatever people choose, future work should stay messy and inclusive.

Consider recent debates about burdensome charter applications and overregulation. Two talking points have gotten plenty of air time: “We should get rid of five-hundred page charter applications”; and “We must reverse the reregulation of charters.” I nod in sympathy every time I hear them. But these notions also often lack detail and nuance. If, for example, a speaker intends them to mean we ought to reverse course on the past decades’ progress on authorizer rigor, students’ rights, or performance management, I stop nodding.

Instead, I believe that the charter application process could better balance rigor and fairness to prospective applications. We can and should identify and remove frustrating burdens on charter schools, while maintaining a tough and effective approval process. And we can accomplish this without undermining transparency, performance management, the rights of students, or the interests of tax-payers. Most authorizers certainly don’t ask for or want huge applications. A reasonable starting point is to figure out how applications with page limits are working (there are plenty of strong authorizers using limits). Colorado’s districts, for example, are currently engaged in precisely this exercise.

We should also distinguish between performance management and regulation. The charter idea depends on accountability for results, so it’s nonsensical to pursue accountability without measuring performance. Modern performance management is the results of decades of work in the field. The current tools include performance frameworks, performance contracts, and clear renewal processes. Such tools serve the interest of almost all charter schools. They provide transparency and predictability, as well as a mutual understanding of expectations. In the absence of these tools, high-stakes charter decisions are primarily determined by ideology and adult interests.

Regulation is, however, a separate concern. And experience in the field should inform any deregulation efforts. I suspect that a great deal of the burden on schools is driven by federal civil rights and special education protections, or the programmatic requirements of state and federal programs and funding. Simply removing them would be tricky, as these regulations, and their associated burdens, were created based on strongly held values that cannot be easily dismissed. But the assumption that these programs generate most of the burden is just a suspicion. The deregulation debate is largely untethered to evidence. All of us interested in resisting reregulation, or removing unnecessary regulations now in place, must identify what we would remove. Then we can discuss harmful oversight and how we can protect and serve shared values.

A lot of work is needed to reduce the burden of charter applications and regulation. But we need not abandon oversight of public values or rigor. We should strive to listen, clarify what we mean, learn more about what is going on in schools, and consider a bunch of strategies. That is the kind of work the sector needs to do and that almost everyone should be able to support and help to implement.

Alex Medler is a senior director at Safal Partners.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.