Schools educate kids; movements don’t

Joe Siedlecki

Here follows the tenth 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 cities’ charter sectors outpace their district schools while others fall behind.

In a recent column for USA Today, AEI’s Rick Hess and Michael McShane argued that “creeping bureaucratization and regulation are endangering the entire charter school movement.” I’d argue the opposite: the real danger to the charter movement is lack of effective regulatory enforcement.

In their column, Hess and McShane put the best possible face on charter successes:

Objective analysis has also found charter schools to be successful, particularly with students from low income backgrounds. In 2013, researchers at Stanford University studied charter schools in twenty-seven states and found that, on average, students in charter schools outperform traditional public school students in reading and do about the same in math. Students below the poverty line and African American students were both found to fare better in charter than in public schools when their standardized test scores were disaggregated.

Certainly there have been sector-wide improvements since 2009, when the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO, home of the Stanford researchers cited above) issued a highly influential report, which found “a disturbing—and far-reaching—subset of poorly performing charter schools.” CREDO’s 2013 update notes important improvements and can indeed be summarized at the broadest level (as Hess and McShane have done) as positive.

But children are educated at individual schools, not by the broader charter movement, and CREDO’s 2013 report makes clear that such distinctions matter. Once you dig beneath average performance, note the researchers, “there remain worrying numbers of charter schools whose learning gains are…substantially worse than the local alternative.” Importantly, the CREDO reports also found that the schools’ quality varies significantly across states and cities.

That warning should keep charter advocates on their toes. The persistence of poorly performing charter schools (and operators who do things such as raise barriers for admission to their schools) does a disservice to families and children and puts the entire charter movement—including the substantial number of high-quality schools and charter management organizations (CMOs) working in long underserved communities—at risk. 

The reality is that governance—the right governance, not bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake—matters immensely. And in the charter sector, effective governance sits with effective authorizers.

Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) makes exactly that case as part of this Fordham-sponsored charter-policy wonk-a-thon.

When one looks at CREDO’s 2009 and 2013 studies, two types of performance emerge. First, states with the best charter school performance are those with good authorizers who have maintained high standards and have closed failing schools. See New York, Louisiana and Massachusetts. The lowest quality states have been those with authorizers who have had low standards. See Texas, Ohio, and others. Second, states where overall charter performance is no different than traditional public schools have had random, often adversarial authorizing practices. See California…

We [see] again and again that authorizers have a tremendous impact on the overall quality of a charter sector in a city or state.

Exactly. Authorizing matters. A lot.

Now let’s get back to Hess and McShane’s claim about the dangers of creeping regulation, starting with a simple question: do states and cities with strong and active authorizers staunch the sector? Resoundingly, no. “Strong-authorizer” cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C.,  have some of the largest and highest-performing charter sectors in the nation. In 2013, CREDO found that compared to their peers in traditional public schools, New Orleans charter pupils got an educational “benefit equivalent to about 28 more days of learning in reading and 72 additional days of learning in math.” In D.C., charter school students got the “equivalent educational benefit each year of 99 extra days in school.”

I’d argue that these cities’ active regulation and oversight of their sectors—including rigorous application processes, willingness to close poor performers, and attempts to streamline the growth of high performers­—not only provide better options for kids in those cities but also protect the entire movement.

Hess and McShane write that “it is time we try something different.” I agree. We should stop painting the entire sector with a broad brush and instead look at the local context. We should be identifying lax authorizers that allow the continuance and proliferation of bad schools, stripping them of their ability to “oversee” schools. We should identify those authorizers that successfully protect the public good—and, in doing so, protect the movement—and celebrate them.

Joe Siedlecki is a program and policy officer for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, where he directs the U.S. Education team’s Expanding Quality Schools Options portfolio. A version of this post originally ran on the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s blog.