Law & Courts

Model State Charter School Law Unveiled

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 23, 2009 4 min read

The nation’s leading charter school organization has unveiled a proposal aimed at overhauling the wide range of state laws that govern the publicly funded schools, as well as establishing charter laws in the 10 states that don’t yet allow the schools to operate.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which is hosting its annual convention this week in Washington, has designed a model state law that, among other things, calls for better access to facilities and other capital resources, stricter accountability for the local school boards and other entities that authorize charters, and performance contracts.

“If the first phase of charter laws was aimed at getting established, then we now have to pay a lot of attention to making them perform well,” said Nelson Smith, the president and chief executive officer of the alliance.

Improving quality has become the charter sector’s marquee issue, even as President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pledged hefty political and financial support for states that include charters as a key part of their school reform strategies.

The timing for states to rewrite their charter laws is ideal, Mr. Smith said, because of that federal leverage, especially the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, a portion of the federal economic-stimulus package slated for states that Mr. Duncan deems the most innovative in their plans for raising student achievement.

The alliance, which spent 18 months crafting the model law, will lobby state legislatures and work with the U.S. Department of Education to push states to adopt the model, Mr. Smith said. Though he declined to name them, Mr. Smith said three of the 10 states that don’t allow charters to operate are considering the alliance’s model law.

“We are offering it to them as a place to start the discussion,” he said.

Accountability for Authorizers

But much of the alliance’s focus will be on revamping charter laws in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Central to that effort, Mr. Smith said, is accountability for authorizers—the local school boards and other entities, such as universities and nonprofit groups, that review charter school proposals and oversee the schools once they are approved to open. To date, state laws have only given authorizers “cursory attention,” he said.

The alliance’s model law calls for requiring authorizers to explicitly state their interest in being responsible for charter school oversight and for state government to give them the resources to do the job.

To that end, the model law would set up charter school data-collection systems so that authorizers can use that information to both monitor compliance and make decisions about renewal and revocation of charters. Authorizers would have to submit annual reports on the performance of the schools they oversee to either the state legislature or another statewide governing body.

“Good authorizers have to want to do this and not be forced,” said Louann Bierlein Palmer, an education professor at Western Michigan University who helped shape the model law. “And those that don’t perform should be taken out of the authorizing business.”

The model law also argues for allowing multiple entities to authorize charters, not just local school boards. But in doing so, it calls for setting up statewide charter school commissions to oversee the range of entities—whether school boards, universities, mayors, nonprofit groups or city councils—that would be permitted to authorize charters.

The statewide commissions would also have authority themselves to issue charters for schools. Seven states and the District of Columbia already have such bodies.

A study released earlier this month by charter school researchers at Stanford University found that in some states with multiple authorizers, charter performance was inferior to that of traditional public schools. In those cases, the researchers found that charter operators had essentially shopped around for the weakest authorizer, a point that Ms. Palmer acknowledged. (“Study Casts Doubt on Charter School Results,” June 15, 2009.)

“You definitely have to have policies in place to prevent that sort of thing, but we believe that there is more good that comes out of having multiple authorizers than there is bad,” she said.

Money and Space

Several features of the model law relate to facilities and access to capital for charter leaders, who often struggle to find affordable space for their schools.

The alliance’s blueprint envisions that states would provide an array of support to charters for securing and paying for facilities, including a per-pupil facilities allowance that would be based in part on what states spend on traditional school facilities over five years. A similar method is used by the District of Columbia. Also, the model law calls for giving charters access to grants and loans, as well as granting them bonding authority.

“There’s no silver bullet on this,” said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for policy at the alliance and one of the authors of the model law. “The states that have made the most progress on this provide a menu of approaches.”

Performance contracts are another key feature of the alliance’s model. Charter schools, once approved to open, would be required to sign contracts with authorizers that explicitly spell out the schools’ academic and operational expectations and clearly define the roles of the charter as well as the authorizer.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Model State Charter School Law Unveiled

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