Opinion
Executive Skills & Strategy Commentary

Charters Need Policy and Community Support

By Nina S. Rees & Todd Ziebarth — January 20, 2015 4 min read

For charter schools to succeed, the schools themselves and the authorizers that approve and monitor them need to uphold the original grand bargain at the heart of the charter movement. Doing so includes closing those charter schools that don’t succeed.

But the health of the charter school movement also depends on other factors, such as how well high-quality public charter schools are growing and whether they have the freedom they need to innovate.

Last year, our organization, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, released a “Health of the Movement” report that was the first to examine and rank state charter school movements on these factors. The analysis found that many states are meeting the goals set out for the charter school movement, and that these states can serve as models to help others raise their game.

The District of Columbia, which runs its schools as a state would, came out on top, followed by Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. These jurisdictions demonstrated success across multiple measures.

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Washington, D.C., actually outpaced the other top states by a significant margin, boasting a combination of strong academic performance, high charter school enrollment, effective quality control by its charter school authorizer, and a good level of innovation among the city’s charter schools.

In states such as Oregon and Nevada, which placed near the bottom in the rankings, quality has been an issue, with charter school students demonstrating less academic progress than their peers in traditional public schools. Charters in those states also served a lower percentage of minority and low-income students than were served by other public schools.

Identifying states where progress is slowest isn’t an exercise in public shaming. It’s an effort to make sure the entire charter school movement delivers on its promise to parents and policymakers. When our schools aren’t getting the job done, we should act quickly to fix them or close them, so that students aren’t trapped in failing schools. In the nation’s capital, about 4 percent of charter schools are closed each year. This suggests that Washington’s overall charter school quality is very high, while the city’s charter school authorizer remains vigilant about addressing poor performance.

Supportive laws are necessary, but not sufficient, for the success of a state's charter schools."

Most of the states with the healthiest charter movements have strong charter school laws, as measured by the alliance’s annual ranking of state charter laws. Having a supportive policy environment, with a robust commitment to quality and charter school autonomy, helps the movement thrive.

This may seem obvious, but what’s interesting is that not every state at the top of the rankings has a strong law. New Jersey, Tennessee, and Rhode Island all have healthy charter school movements but flawed charter laws. At the same time, New Mexico, with the 12th-best charter law in the country, and Nevada, with the 13th-best, don’t crack the Top 20 in the Health of the Movement rankings.

This suggests that supportive laws are necessary, but not sufficient, for the success of a state’s charter schools. Quality authorizers, effective charter-support organizations, outstanding school leaders and teachers, and engaged parents and community members are all essential for a charter movement to thrive. Where these ingredients are present, the charter community can overcome a bad law, but where they are missing, the charter movement can struggle in spite of a good law.

In every state—even those at the top—policy leaders should strengthen their charter movements.

One of the biggest challenges facing charter schools is the disparity in funding between charters and other public schools. Researchers at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville reported last year that the average charter school receives 28 percent, or $3,800, less funding per pupil than traditional public schools. This gap in funding doesn’t make sense since charter schools are also public schools. Students should be valued equally regardless of which public school they choose.

In addition to providing equal funding, policymakers can uphold their end of the charter school bargain by ensuring that charters have the autonomy to be innovative and creative in their school models and instructional techniques, removing caps that artificially limit charter school growth, and establishing more charter school authorizers that can approve new schools and provide rigorous oversight. With more than 1 million student names (including, admittedly, some duplicates) on charter school waiting lists across the country, the need for more high-quality charter schools is clear and urgent.

The Health of the Movement report confirms that many states are succeeding in delivering high-quality educational options to students. Yet other states are still trying to get the formula right. States that need to improve the health of their charter school movement can look to the example of places like the District of Columbia, Louisiana, and other top performers as they work to make a high-quality public education available to every student.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as More Than Policy: A Prescription for Healthy Charters

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