Quality education
Nurturing quality charters takes wherewithal, political capital, and—above all—interest.
Photo by woodleywonderworks.

The One Million Lives Campaign launched in the fall by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has captured popular (and media) attention, mostly for its call to shutter the worst-performing charter schools. But that’s only half of its purpose. The point of “One Million Lives,” as its name suggests, is to create the conditions that allow a million kids a seat in at least 3,000 high-performing schools.

So let’s take a moment to consider the other half of this worthy effort. Parker Baxter, NACSA’s Director of Knowledge and one of the charter movement’s smarter thinkers on growth and accountability, has taken to the Dell Foundation’s blog to encourage authorizers and policy makers to find ways to replace bad charter schools with good charter schools.

As hard as it’s been to close bad schools, nurturing high-flying charters is at least as tricky: It takes wherewithal, political capital, and—above all—interest, or at least the adoption of laws and practices that provide an easier path for high-flying charters to prosper. Baxter recognizes this and points out some more obvious steps to quality (approving new schools carefully and establishing high standards for performance), while urging states to consider more relatively difficult ideas to implement (holding authorizers more accountable for their portfolios and allowing better charter access to underutilized or unused buildings).

The harder ideas remind us of a persistent problem in the charter sector today: It is still mostly locally elected school boards that do the authorizing, and there are far too many school boards that would rather control the growth of charters than nurture the spread of the best of them. This is apparent especially when it comes to proposals that allow charters access to district facilities.

Consider a current legislative measure in Florida, which would not only give charters access to vacant or half-filled buildings in school districts but would empower districts (presently the only charter authorizers in Florida) to give first priority to charter operators “with a proven record of academic success.”

Is this a reasonable step to quality chartering? Not to the districts and their lobbyists. The Florida Association of District School Superintendents said it had “major concerns” with the bill, and various district chiefs tried to remind lawmakers that their schools had capacity because their students had fled to charters. The message: Don’t make it easier for charters to succeed.

And that’s a challenge for the One Million Lives campaign moving forward. Yes, as NACSA has urged, the charter movement can no longer tolerate the failure of many charter schools, and the association has already been successful in getting some authorizers to take the problems in their portfolios seriously. But, as Baxter points out, it’s just as important to lower the barriers for better schools. He’s right. As hard as NACSA has been on those who tolerate bad schools, they’ll have to be equally hard on those who fight the means to create good charters.

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