The charter-school quality agenda

We’ve seen big wins on the charter-school front over the
last two years. Advocates in many states successfully eliminated or raised caps
on new charters (New York, Massachusetts), created new statewide authorizers
(Indiana), and unlocked resources for school facilities (D.C.). Each of these
initiatives should lead to significant growth in the charter sector in the
years ahead.

road map photo

A roadmap to charter quality
(Photo by Jessica Garro)

But expanding the reach of charters is only half of the
equation. Ensuring their quality is
even more important. On this front, state lawmakers should target efforts on
three main policies, and follow the lead of those blazing each trail.

Better Authorizing

By far the most important thing states can do to promote school
quality is to make sure that charter authorizers—those that charter, oversee,
and, if necessary, shutter charter schools—have the incentives, skills, and
tools to do their jobs well. States with strong authorizers—such as
Massachusetts and New York—tend to boast high-quality charter schools. Those
with lackluster authorizing practices have struggled.

Since the charter movement began, we have learned a great
deal about what is required of effective authorizers (thanks, in part, to the
great work done at the National
Association of Charter School Authorizers
and the National
Alliance of Public Charter Schools
). These authorizers are responsible, professional
organizations that believe in charters but equally in student achievement. They
have expert staffs. They have sufficient resources (via school fees or a state
appropriation) to play their role competently. And they themselves are held to
account for their performance and that of their schools. For example, the Ohio legislature recently
passed a law that will bar authorizers from opening new schools if their
current schools are particularly low-performing. That’s well worth trying

Which state statutes are particularly strong on charter
school authorizing?

Minnesota, the state with the top-ranked charter law for two
years straight, according to the NAPCS, provides a good primer. Authorizers are
able to collect sufficient fees to oversee their charters effectively. Before
sponsoring a charter, the state requires them to undergo a thorough vetting by
the commissioner of education, and then submit to a state review of their
school-evaluation practices every five years. At every step, from initial authorization
to renewal or closure, clear and comprehensive procedures exist for
relationships among state, authorizer, and charter. States that already boast
high-quality authorizers may not need that level of prescription, but for
jurisdictions with legitimate quality concerns, the Land of 10,000 Lakes offers
a strong example.

Expanding the reach of charters is only half of the equation. Ensuring their quality is even more important.


Creating Incentives
for the Replication of High-Quality Charter Schools

One of the most promising developments of recent years has
been the rise of networks of high-performing charter schools. Policymakers
would be smart to find ways to recruit these networks to their states—and to
encourage the widespread replication of effective models. Here are some things
states might do:

  • Encourage
    districts to share facilities with high-performing charters
    Ohio allows school districts to include high-performing charter schools’ test
    scores in their performance ratings—if they provide facilities to them. A
    win-win, this move eases the facilities challenges which often cause
    high-quality schools to pass up expansion or replication and offers districts a
    boost on their performance rating. Columbus Public Schools, for example, opened
    up space to a new KIPP school in part because of this incentive. New York City
    was able to lure several top-notch networks to Gotham by providing high-quality
    space. Especially when charters are under-funded, access to facilities can be a
    real incentive for high-achieving schools to come to town.
  • Create
    a pipeline of talented teachers and leaders
    As successful schools expand, they need access to a pool of great teachers and
    leaders in order to continue excelling. Streamlining licensure policies and
    recruiting non-traditional teachers from programs like Teach For America or The
    New Teacher Project benefit charter and district schools alike.
  • Create
    “smart” caps
    . If policymakers are determined to
    limit the number of charter schools allowed in the state (we’d prefer no
    charter caps, but if they must), it’s
    important to make exceptions—“smart caps”—for excellent charter schools (from
    inside or outside the state) to expand and replicate. In Michigan, this means
    that high-performing charters can convert to “schools of excellence” after
    meeting rigorous criteria, freeing up slots for authorizers to sponsor new
    schools and replicate their success. In Connecticut, charter enrollment is
    restricted, but the state board can waive the caps for schools with a track
    record of success.

An Academic “Death
Penalty” for Chronically Low-Performing Charter Schools

lawmakers need to get serious about instances of chronic failure in the charter
sector. The fundamental theory of charter schools is that bad schools get fixed
or get closed. Yet we’ve
learned from experience
that shuttering a bad charter school is just as
politically challenging as closing a bad district school. If authorizers don’t
have the fortitude or will to address school failure, state law must step do it
for them.

(yes, Ohio again) provides a decent model for putting this strict
accountability into practice. Since 2006, Buckeye charter schools in a
persistent state of “academic emergency” (generally for three years) have been
legally subject to automatic closure. This provision has already led to the
shuttering of seventeen charters, with three more scheduled to close in June of
2012. Strict enforcement has coincided with better performance: The Ohio
Department of Education reports that the percentage of charters on the state’s
“Academic Watch” and “Academic Emergency” lists dropped from 64 percent in
2007-08 to 43 percent in 2010-11. That’s still too big a number, of course, but
not as big as before.

The charter
sector will never be 100 percent full of great schools. Nor should it be; the
genius of chartering is the chance for innovators to try new approaches and
sometimes fail. What’s critical is to put in place policies that expeditiously
move the failed efforts off the stage and create room for stronger ideas to
take their place. States: Get cracking!

We originally
this piece (in a slightly different form) at the PIE-Network
annual summit. To read other policy briefs from the summit, click here.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.