School Choice & Charters Opinion

Are Charter Schools Facing a Reckoning? Not So Fast

The success of chartering is in its innovation
By Bruno V. Manno — June 27, 2019 4 min read
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Earlier this year, a USA Today piece reported that the charter school strategy is “facing a reckoning,” adding that “the rollback on charters is well underway.”

Not really.

No doubt, today’s charter political environment is precarious.

Charter openings declined steadily from their 2013 peak of 642 to 309 in 2017.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders recently called for a moratorium on federal support for charters along with several other proposals that would rein in these independently run public schools.

Recent teacher strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Denver cast charters as foes of traditional K-12 education, responsible for its fiscal woes.

And witness the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidates in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin who campaigned against charters and won. That’s a far cry from the bipartisan support for charter schools of their predecessors—two Democrats and four Republicans.

Contrast that with nearly three decades of bipartisan federal support for the charter strategy by four presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. And while the federal charter school grant program did not become law until 1994 under Clinton, the George H.W. Bush administration, led by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, used the bully pulpit to support the passage of the first state charter school laws.

Yes, charters are in troubled waters today. That won’t change anytime soon. But the “reckoning” and “rollback” is not all it’s cracked up to be.

For one thing, charter school enrollment continues to grow. Current national data show that from the 2006-07 to 2017-18 school years enrollment more than doubled from 1.2 million students to nearly 3.2 million, and that growth is not restricted to just a few districts. Charters are expanding into new jurisdictions. In 2017, 21 districts had at least 30 percent of their students in charter schools—up from one in 2006—and 214 districts had at least 10 percent in charters—up from fewer than 20 in 2006.

The charter strategy is spreading—slowly but surely. I believe this “slow and steady” approach is consistent with a long-established view that mainly positions chartering as an institutional innovation-fostering system change rather than an educational innovation focused on individual schools. This perspective was first explained in 1990 by Ted Kolderie, an early formulator of chartering, in a report by the Progressive Policy Institute. The primary question for assessing chartering, from this perspective, is whether the strategy produces new approaches to K-12 governance and management.

I believe a more valid appraisal of chartering’s success analyzes these novel K-12 governance and management arrangements rather than places an exclusive focus on individual charter schools. Traditional school districts are modeled on the centrally regulated “public utility model,” which creates a K-12 system overseen by local boards. Chartering divests the school board of its exclusive franchise to run and operate schools and produces a decentralized charter sector that uses a contract model to develop agreements with independent operators who run schools. These governance innovations include state Recovery School Districts (think: New Orleans), an entity that removes low-performing schools from district control and restarts them as charter or charter-like schools.

The existence of independent school authorizers—including state charter boards, non-education government offices such as a mayor, nonprofits, and higher education institutions—is another governance innovation, as is the creation of “virtual networks” of similar schools.

A recent analysis by the research organization Public Impact describes three additional pioneering K-12 governance models catalyzed by the charter strategy: partner-run autonomous schools (Indianapolis’ Innovation Schools would be one such example), partner-led autonomous schools (as in the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools), and district-run autonomous schools (consider the case of the Fulton County Charter System in Georgia).

The fact that these institutional innovations and systemic effects have proliferated is, in short, a more accurate success metric for assessing chartering.

And what of the schools created by chartering? Knowing which are succeeding with student learning is important. But this is tricky business because—purposely—not all charter schools are the same, but only similar schools can be properly compared.

For example, analysts like Margaret “Macke” Raymond at Stanford University’s CREDO and Sarah Cohodes and others at the National Bureau of Economic Research have shown that a sizable charter subgroup—high-expectations/high-support schools—have significant positive achievement impacts when test scores are measured, especially for children of color and students from low-income communities. This, too, should be seen as another success.

Yes, today’s assault on chartering is real—but overhyped and not unexpected. Nearly 30 years ago, charter pioneer Kolderie wrote, “Withdrawing the exclusive franchise and divestiture [will] threaten the existing system. Resistance will be fierce.”

The charter strategy is like the late 1950s Timex wristwatch advertising campaign that exposed the watch to a punishing test to demonstrate its durability—it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

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