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Counterproductive Charter Rankings

The fight for true educational justice and equality for kids suffered a setback this week with the release of a much-hyped report purportedly offering a broad overview and ranking of the country’s 42 charter school laws.

Only 20 or so of the 41 states (and the District of Columbia) that provide a home to charter schools truly have the components necessary to provide the educational justice that was and is the driving force behind these schools’ creation. We know this because we’ve been studying this very issue since 1993 and have produced at an almost annual rate a comprehensive report assessing, year to year, the strength and execution of every state charter law. The Center for Education Reform’s research and analysis is based not just on reading and re-reading each law and regulation, but also on a personal, hands-on involvement with schools throughout the country, firsthand accounts and continuous discussion with both parents and leaders affected by the law, as well as with legislators who often don’t realize that a law’s plans and its implementation can vary greatly.

CER’s research and rankings – cited for over a decade by media and political leaders alike – are solid, accepted, and show that when states have great laws, they will have great schools.

If only it were so easy to ensure sound policy be adopted and grown.

On the road to educating lawmakers and promulgating strong charter laws (no simple task with legislator turnover, not to mention their susceptibility to daily outside pressure), another group has decided that a second analysis of existing laws is necessary (regardless of whether or not it might cause confusion, deter policymakers from doing the hard work required, or clash with existing best practices). And so, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has released a new law report, one which scores of education pioneers denounce as damaging. As a pioneer in the area of substantive and structural change in education reform since 1993, the task falls to CER to take on the unpleasant – but extremely important – task of publicly criticizing our respected colleagues for their counterproductive work.

One needs only to look closely at the law NAPCS considers number one in the country – Maine – to quickly see our point. Please don’t misunderstand, we love Maine. In fact, we’ve rooted for and supported local citizens there for years as they worked to enact a law. It took more than a decade of disappointments, but this year, they passed a law that even its ardent sponsors acknowledge is modest and in need of improvement. Still, it’s a start. But a leader to be duplicated around the country? Is the creation of yet another layer of bureaucracy to create new schools built on top of an existing bureaucracy long resistant to their existence the right answer? Or limiting charter growth by the state board (the authorizer more likely to say yes to a charter application than a local board) to 10 schools in 10 years (and not even this year)? Is this the best model we have?

How about the District of Columbia (ranked 1st by CER, 11th by NAPCS)? Almost universally regarded as a great law that limits the imposition of work rules; allows school leaders the freedom they deserve and the accountability they embrace; provides facilities assistance and a nearly equitable funding stream; and puts trust in an authorizing and accountability system that removes the entrenched bias of traditional school administrators. Just as importantly fostered community support unparalleled elsewhere.

And Arkansas (32nd in our analysis, 17th according to NAPCS), a state that has only one authorizer (the state board of education with prior school board’s approval), a cap on the number of schools that can open, inequitable funding making it difficult for charters to operate, and little freedoms for the school and their teachers. Arkansas’ law doesn’t just need some tweaks, it needs a serious overhaul before it can be considered in the top 50 percent of charter laws.

We believe that in order for our children to be best served, there must be the ability to start as many (quantity) excellent (quality) charter schools in a reasonable period of time. We live in a nation that still sees fewer than 45 percent of its students able to complete grade-level work! We are part of a global economy that suffers daily from its educational decline and malaise! So whether you live in Maine or Delaware, 10 schools in 10 years managed by the very same people who have denied reform again and again is not exactly a recipe for success.

Organizations with missions designed to advance certain critical education reforms should understand and respect their obligation and role as leaders when developing and releasing data that can affect public policy. Leadership is not exercised through the creation of formulas and their application to an activity solely to support their creation. Leaders have vision. Leaders are imaginative. Leaders are ambitious.

None of the aforementioned adjectives can be applied to NAPCS’s charter law ranking. It would be akin to the traditional way of doing business promoted by the school districts that charters were created to challenge.

Processes and formulas don’t make good laws. More importantly, they don’t make good schools.

Charter schools are public schools that operate on performance-based accountability, are open by choice, and are free to operate with the kind of flexibility many educators would (and do) trade their iron-clad union contracts for. Charters must meet all rules and regulations with respect to standards, testing, civil rights, health and safety. That’s why more than 5,700 exist today, serving nearly two million children. And surveys show they are helping a disproportionate number of poor and minority students achieve at levels not experienced (and not expected) at their conventional public schools.

Charter school success is not borne of formulas, but it does need critical components to find success. First, a charter can only truly be successful if it is created under a law that ensures the school has a chance of being given proper consideration and, once approved, can operate with flexibility and autonomy in exchange for results.

Second, a charter can only be successful if there are consequences in place for both success and failure. This means there must be strong entities in place charged with ensuring their progress and enforcing their performance contract.

That is educational justice – the availability of a range of great schools to which students and their families are not confined by virtue of social status, money, zip code or race.

And no matter which way you slice it, the NAPCS report and rankings defy this very clear, critical principle of education reform.

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