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Charter Laws and Flawed Research

By Jeanne Allen — September 08, 2009 3 min read
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Centralized, top-down control didn’t work for traditional public schools, and it won’t work for charter schools, without turning them into highly regulated, input-focused entities that wind up exactly like public schools before the advent of education reform.

Since the charter movement’s inception, the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which I head, has compiled data and research year after year that reinforce several key points, the major one being that great charter laws demand accountability from authorizers, applicants for charters, and the schools that are created. Great laws also permit extensive freedom from state agencies and other centralized entities that seek, by way of rule-making and “guidance,” to control outcomes.

Charter laws such as New York state’s, for example, in which the authorizer-review process is rigorous, the areas of oversight clearly but crisply spelled out, and wide latitude exists to create and re-create school programs, have resulted in exceptional results statewide while providing intervention for failing schools when necessary.

But states like New York have something else that allows their schools to thrive: They collect and review data constantly—the kind of data that a recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, ignores in favor of using “virtual” students in comparisons of progress with traditional public schools.

Why study made-up, composite kids when you can study the real thing? Why ignore years of state-by-state data when you can access the real poverty data (missing in the federal statistics CREDO used) and the real condition of students, schools, and even the laws that affect their outcomes?

The answer is expediency for expediency’s sake. The research community has been encouraged by far too many meetings, roundtables, and self-absorbed policy task forces to get to the bottom line—to tell us, once and for all, what is right or wrong about charters. Yet in researchers’ efforts to do this, those authors have not been compelled to set foot in more than a handful of schools, or to collect school, district, or state data on the institutions in question.

They randomly create, randomly sample, and randomly produce results that are touted as definitive, when in reality they are no more definitive than politics itself.

Politics makes laws, and the politics of each state vary greatly. There are model components that every state charter law must have, and, as we’ve reported on our annual rankings, these components—requirements that truly yield great schools—are the following: (1) having independent, multiple authorizers (not just school boards) to vet, approve, and monitor schools and hold them accountable; (2) true fiscal equity, which doesn’t create a new funding stream but follows the same ones used for all other public schools; and (3) clear regulatory and contractual relief.

Political compromises have given us instead a panoply of laws that yield varying results, not the lack of state and regulatory oversight that’s needed. Creating more rules to codify into law for the benefit of the traditional education entities charters were designed to circumvent doesn’t get us more and better charters—which is the point of charter laws. It just makes them more like the status quo, and less likely to draw the kind of innovative, disruptive technologies that the early part of the charter movement allowed and encouraged.

Great schools with great achievement and great principles that develop great character in students can and do occur when that is the goal sought, cultivated, managed, and encouraged. That doesn’t happen when we create layers of oversight, but it does happen when we create new ways to develop such schools, and allow for their development as far away as possible from pre-existing, risk-adverse local and state entities (which exist regardless of whether schools are working or not).

That vested-interest, centralized mentality exists in both the government and nonprofit sectors, and is likely to kill what little progress the last 18 years of charter school innovation has brought. Real, comprehensive, student-based research will yield a true picture of the successes taking place within this American reform called charter schools. And real, comprehensive charter laws will continue to yield great schools that will show those successes.

Such laws exist. They are living models and are easy to copy and emulate. That is what wins over policymakers—that, along with being confident that the policy initiative they are pursuing is right. Though lately, if you listen to some of the very groups tasked with promoting such laws, our country’s charter school success story doesn’t sound very encouraging.

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