New book from charter school advocates offers lots of bad advice

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Some smart education reformers just made two thirds of a very dumb mistake. In Charting a New Course: The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools, Jeanne Allen, Max Eden and others (including Mike McShane, Ben Lindquist, Derrell Bradford and Jay Greene) offer several solid suggestions for state policy makers, such as encouraging more small one-off charters, having more than one authorizer in a given locale, systematically auditing the regulatory burden on charter schools, and giving them latitude to hire the teachers of their choice.

That’s the one third that’s smart and timely. But the main thrust of this new volume from the Center on Education Reform is to abolish results-based accountability for charter schools and scrap careful vetting of would-be charter operators. Instead, they would rely on a marketplace free-for-all in which pretty much anyone can start a school and authorizers don’t shut (or non-renew) a school just because nobody is learning anything in it. “Standardized testing” is damned over and over again in these pages as if it were the root of all evil in today’s charter sphere.

This is a version of the familiar libertarian stance on charters (and school choice more broadly): the market will provide all the quality control that’s necessary. Quality is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., the parent—and the school operator. The heck with school outcomes.

This is idiocy. It’s also entirely unrealistic in the ESSA era. It arises from the view—long since dismissed by every respectable economist—that education is a private good and the public has no interest in an educated citizenry. Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves “public.” (For now, let’s set aside the thorny question of private-school accountability in an era of vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and suchlike.)

Test scores are by no means the only legitimate measure of whether kids are learning, and no state is still using “standardized” tests in the old-fashioned “norm-referenced” sense. In fact, a lot of today’s assessments are pretty darn good, and well aligned with the academic standards in which states set forth the essential skills and knowledge that they believe the next generation of their citizens should master. Nor is any state or authorizer worthy of its salt just looking at proficiency scores. They’re also looking at various gauges of student growth, as well as graduation rates, pupil and teacher attendance and persistence, and more (e.g., Advanced Placement scores, dual credit results, where kids go to high school after leaving the charter middle school, etc.). Good authorizers do site visits and pay attention to school climate.

To discard indicators of student learning, however, is profoundly unfair to the students themselves, particularly to poor kids and those with families that depend on other responsible adults and governing bodies—not just obscure school report cards on state websites—to winnow the choices so as to ensure that the schools they’re choosing among are worth choosing among. It’s also a raw deal for taxpayers.

I sincerely wish that every parent was a sophisticated school chooser and that the charter sector would produce more good choices for them, while winnowing out the bad ones. If it doesn’t do this via its own mechanisms such as authorizing, more states will pass clumsy “sudden death” laws to get rid of persistently low-performing schools (and you can bet that those death sentences will be based mainly on proficiency scores).

Are these folks really prepared to just hand out charters after a cursory screening? And just trust unproven people with our taxpayer dollars and our kids—after all that we've seen in Ohio and elsewhere, despite all that we know about greedy and sometimes criminal behavior in the charter space, despite mounting evidence of for-profit operators opting for shareholders over schoolchildren? And are we really supposed to pretend that test scores don't matter? Of course let’s consider other elements when judging a school’s success—including whether anybody wants to attend it. But are we really supposed to ignore immediately-measurable outcomes? Can any sane person picture waiting until an elementary school’s graduates are twenty-five to determine whether it succeeded with its students?

None of this is to justify the regulatory overburden that today plagues most charter schools and authorizers. None of it justifies clumsy, bureaucratic, paper-chase practices by authorizers. Certainly, none of it justifies the tendency of many states to substitute “compliance” with dozens of input-and-process rules for sophisticated attention to whether a school is delivering the results it promised, including (nearly always) results that also fulfill state standards.

Yes, the charter sector needs a regulatory overhaul. But after showing that the bathwater is indeed dirty (and slipping in a bit of welcome clean water), Jeanne and her team of smart analysts are at grave risk this time of drowning the baby. 

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.