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Advocates bemoan lack of progress on state charter school policies

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By Travis Pillow
RedefinEd
March 17, 2015

Around the country, few states approved new policies giving charter schools greater autonomy or helping them grow, according to a new report.

The report by the Center for Education Reform gives Florida’s policies a B, the same grade it received last year, as most states, including those with relatively charter-friendly policies, saw little change in their scores.

Kara Kerwin, the organization’s president, blames the lack of movement on election-year politics and a “growing body of misinformation” fueling calls for increased regulation.

“It is abundantly clear that little to no progress has been made over the past year,” she writes in the report’s introduction. “Charter school growth does continue at a steady, nearly linear pace nationally, especially in states with charter laws graded ‘A’ or ‘B,’ but an even more accelerated pace would allow charter schools to play a more central role in addressing the demands and needs of our nation’s students.”

The center looks at factors that help charter schools grow, like the funding the receive, the autonomy they are granted and their ability to open new schools without facings caps or other restrictions.

It’s worth looking at how these rankings line up with other reports that grade states on different factors. Three jurisdictions, (Michigan, Indiana and Washington D.C.) out-rank Florida in both the center’s report and an analysis released last fall by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Arizona, meanwhile, gets an A in center’s report but lower marks from the alliance, which notes charter schools in that state tend to serve fewer low-income and minority students than traditional public schools, and their students tend to show lower academic growth.

On a new blog at U.S. News and World Report, David Osborne notes a common thread among jurisdictions where charters outperform traditional schools: Strong authorizing.

The original charter idea was to open the public school monopoly to competition from new schools, operated on contract by other organizations: nonprofits, teacher cooperatives, universities, even for-profit businesses. The charter was usually a five-year performance contract, laying out the results expected from the school. Charter authorizers – typically school districts or state boards of education – would reject charter applications from groups that did not appear equipped to succeed, and they would close schools if students did not learn as promised.

This approach is largely a reality in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. But any good idea can be implemented poorly. In Arizona two statewide authorizers handed out 15-year charters like candy but lacked the capacity to oversee the more than 500 schools that sprung up.

Florida didn’t pass any major charter school legislation last year, in part because some key lawmakers wanted to give some of the laws they passed in 2012, like a law creating standard charter school contracts, a chance to take effect.

This year, the Legislature is likely to take some steps to improve charter school authorizing. Whether it will offer increased funding for charter school facilities should become clearer this week, as the House and Senate release draft budget proposals. But it loses points from various advocacy groups for not allowing organizations other than school districts to authorize charters, an issue complicated by the state’s constitution.

As for the national picture, it looks like charter school advocates see some chances to make serious gains this year.

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