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Feds Work to Regulate Charter Schools

Much is and has been happening behind close doors in Washington, DC in the name of ensuring charter school accountability. While accountability for traditional public schools is discussed in terms of school improvement grants and turn around models, proposals for charter school accountability are much more highly regulated, taking a movement born to welcome entrepreneurial enterprise and demonstrate performance-based accountability, and turning it into a new “system” that requires a heavy hand from federal policymakers.

According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), an influential, left-leaning voice in Washington, “Future federal charter school investments should focus on quality. The Charter School Program can help drive state quality-control measures by targeting grants to states with robust authorizing practices, smart charter school caps, and those that demonstrate the capacity to effectively monitor charter schools and close poor-performing ones.”  Most charter advocates believe this is what state laws already do – or should do — and that it’s not the feds’ job to regulate quality, particularly when they have little access to real-time, accurate data on outcomes, demographics and the individual goals of individual charter schools.

But Democrats and Republicans alike do not seem to understand the power that a new federal law has on the market.  Under the proposed 2011 “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act” (HR 2218), as summarized by CAP, states’ efforts “to support quality authorizing practices must be considered in the awarding of state grants, including activities intended to improve how authorizing practices are funded, but the proposal does not prioritize state grants based on the quality of state authorizing efforts.” The question remains– Who decides what quality authorizing is? You can bet Washington won’t leave that to the states!

Then there is the All-Star Act (HR 1525), introduced by Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Erik Paulsen (R-MN) in April 2011.  The Center for American Progress reports that, “The bill is also important in that it prioritizes states that have strong authorizing policies and an effective process for closing down low-performing charter schools for Charter School Program state grants. This critical element should be included in other charter school proposals and in ESEA.”

Interesting that without new legislation or authority, the U.S. Department of Education, on November 19, 2012, issued to the state of Pennsylvania a mandate as to how the state must assess its own charter schools for purposes of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). State officials sought to align charter ratings to the way school districts are ranked, but clearly the opponents of charters are ruling the day in DC.

“Federal education officials have denied Pennsylvania’s request to evaluate charter school achievement using more lenient criteria, saying they must be assessed by the same standard as traditional schools. ‘I cannot approve this … because it’s not aligned with the statute and regulations,’ U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote in a letter released by the state Wednesday, November 21.

“The issue surfaced in September when Pennsylvania’s latest standardized test scores were reported. … State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis treated charter schools as districts, not individual schools.

“Schools must hit certain targets at every tested grade level to make AYP. But for a district to meet the benchmark, it needs only to hit targets in one of three grade spans: grades 3-5, 4-6 or 9-12.

“Under Pennsylvania law, every charter school is considered its own district. So by using the grade span methodology, about 59 percent of charters made AYP, a figure that supporters touted, comparing it with the 50 percent of traditional schools that hit the target.

“Yet only 37 percent of charters would have made AYP under the individual school method. Delisle ordered Pennsylvania to re-evaluate charter schools’ AYP status using that standard by the end of the fall semester.” (See the Philadelphia Inquirer for the full story.)

What the U.S. Department of Education officials fail to appreciate is that many charter schools have different grade configurations than traditional district schools. Some charters offer all grades, others are more limited.  But regardless, they operate like districts unto themselves regarding management and operations, and without commensurate funding. Apples should be compared to apples.  If a school district’s AYP can be met based on just one target, why should a charter have to meet all three to make AYP?  The bad policymaking at the federal level underscores why the U.S. Department of Education has no business regulating the charter school arena, but Congress and the Administration persist, nonetheless, without any authority to do so.

Advocates should be concerned not only about these policy moves but the proposals making their way through Congress, which are supported by many national charter school groups, for reasons we can only hope is due to ignorance about the political process.  The Charter School Quality Act (S686), introduced last year by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) will result in yet another heap of federal oversight over charter schools. As CAP puts it, the bill “seeks to improve state chartering policies by targeting Charter School Program grants to states that have developed a transparent process for accrediting, training, and evaluating state charter authorizers. In addition, states that evaluate the effectiveness of their charter authorizers; encourage authorizers to abide by research-based best practices; and primarily base charter school approval, renewal, and closure on student achievement data, are also prioritized for grant awards.”

This doesn’t sound like anything having to do with whether students learn but an excuse to create more process-oriented rules which make charter schools just like failed schools — the very approach that the charter concept once sought to avoid, and is now forcing them into school-district like boxes, with all the best of intentions.