Arbitrary caps on the number of charter schools or charter school students are still bad ideas. At Fordham, we've consistently said so and kept a watchful eye on the fights to remove them. The idea hardly even belongs in conversations about education policy and, instead, represents a kind of education politics that comes about as part of the sometimes-ugly deal making necessary to enact or preserve reform.
Charter school caps and an unhealthy emphasis on market share go hand in hand. A study out this week from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that a majority of students in both New Orleans (79 percent) and Detroit (51 percent) are in charter schools. Additionally, the District of Columbia continues to inch closer, with 43 percent of its students in charters during the last school year. While this may be seen as good news, especially given that all three cities have charter sectors that outperform their district counterparts, even those cities have individual charter schools that shouldn't be operating. Part of the reason the debate over ideas like school choice can be so contentious is that when one side says charter schools in a given city are great and the other side says they are terrible, both are right—because each sector (traditional, charter, and private) in every city has both strong and weak exemplars.
A cap restricts charter school growth and is blind to quality. While it's pretty straightforward to recognize that a cap might prevent a quality charter school from expanding, the reality is likely even more destructive. If a top-notch CMO would eventually like to place five schools in a particular locale but knows a cap would keep it at two schools for the near-term, it probably won't even take a chance on those two schools and will open zero. The reasons are simple: It would be an inefficient use of resources for the CMO to only have two schools when its model calls for five, and a quality operator will be hesitant to enter a market it deems unfriendly in the first place.
Perhaps there are times when a cap is appropriate. When a new and untested reform is being tried out, for example, a cap is not the worst idea in the world. Even then, it should be coupled with a date for the cap to sunset or for the program to be reauthorized (or not). In most states, however, charter schools are well established, so a cap serves only as a tool to restrict their growth and protect the market share of other sectors. Leaders should consider the quality of schools rather than merely the sector to which they happen to belong.
Instead, local and state officials should “cap” enrollment in the lowest-quality schools by moving capacity from the worst school managers to the best. While we'd love to immediately guarantee that no child had to go to such a school, the unfortunate reality is that there are simply more children in bad schools than exist open spots in great ones. Closing failing schools without the availability of a better option doesn’t do anyone any good, and an expensive federal effort aimed at school turnaround has (pending further review) been less than impressive.
A sector-neutral emphasis on quality can encourage the replication of what works, while enabling strong accountability on what doesn’t. To do this, charter contracts should be flexible enough to allow for replication after a proven track record of success, and the best traditional-public-school principals should be given the freedom and support to bring their model to other schools with additional pay and authority in return.
This is, more or less, the playbook being followed in states like Michigan, Tennessee, and Louisiana, where the worst schools are placed into a recovery district with a different governance structure. Still, these options are often designed as merely another (albeit, an often better and “charterized”) school district, while the emphasis should be on closing the very worst schools and expanding the very best, regardless of sector. In addition, we must always allow for innovation, as the very best school models have (hopefully) yet to come to be.
Ultimately, letting parents vote with their feet is still the best way to determine which schools should remain viable, which should expand, and which should be closed. Government can help create frameworks for swifter growth of quality options in all sectors. They should also pass strong transparency and accountability laws, but arbitrarily limiting the growth of one sector in order to benefit the others will only hamper the growth of quality options that so many diverse school ecosystems desperately need.