Law & Courts

State Picture on Charter Caps Still Mixed

Some easing restrictions as federal officials urge, though others reluctant.
August 03, 2009 6 min read
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Amid a strong push by the Obama administration to ensure that states don’t constrain the growth of the charter school sector, a number of legislatures this year debated measures on how many charters to allow, or whether to have such schools at all. But even with the extra attention from Washington, the outcomes have proved decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, at least four states took steps to permit more charter schools. Illinois and Tennessee raised their charter caps. Louisiana eliminated its ceiling altogether. And Delaware allowed a moratorium on new charters to lapse.

But some states went in a different direction.

In Maine, one of 10 states that still don’t allow the publicly financed but largely independent schools, an attempt to enact a charter law failed again, voted down in the state Senate.

“It’s very frustrating, because people have been trying since the mid-1990s to get public charter schools going,” said Judith Denton Jones, the director of the Maine Association for Public Charter Schools. Several education groups, including the state teachers’ association, opposed the bill.

Legislation to raise the charter cap in Texas and make other changes to charter law was defeated on a point of order in the state House, after winning unanimous Senate approval. A New Hampshire moratorium on opening more state-authorized charters was extended. And Oregon imposed new restrictions on the growth of cyber charter schools.

Meanwhile, in at least three states where lawmakers had not yet adjourned as of last week—Massachusetts, Michigan, and North Carolina—efforts were still under way to lift charter caps.

Changes Considered

In any case, state action on charter matters this year was by no means limited to the quantity of such schools. Lawmakers considered a wide range of measures, from imposing new accountability demands to making changes in charter school funding.

In Minnesota, where the nation’s first charter school opened in 1992, the legislature increased the demands on charter authorizers—the bodies designated to approve, monitor, and potentially close schools—out of concern that some authorizers have done a poor job. Ohio tightened up its accountability requirements, while charter proponents managed to fend off a proposal by Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, that would have dramatically cut back funding for the state’s charter schools.

Since taking office in January, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have promoted charters as a powerful strategy to help improve the U.S. education system. They have called on states to expand the sector, even as they have also emphasized the need to ensure high quality among charters and close the poor performers.

Mr. Duncan has said states that impose “arbitrary” caps on the number of charter schools, and those that do not permit charters at all, risk being at a “competitive disadvantage” for aid under the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund established under the economic-stimulus law. (“Obama Team’s Advocacy Boosts Charter Momentum,” June 17, 2009.)

The U.S. Department of Education issued draft guidelines in July for the Race to the Top money,

spelling out criteria for grant applicants. A subsection on charter policy said the department would consider the extent to which a state allows charter growth, has adequate policies for holding charter schools accountable, ensures they get “equitable funding,” and provides money and assistance to help charters obtain facilities.

Todd M. Ziebarth, the vice president for policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, argues that

pressure from the Obama administration has helped to tip the balance in some legislative fights.

“It definitely played a role,” he said, not only in aiding efforts to lift state charter caps, but also in helping charter advocates “play defense” against attempts in several states to impose caps or moratoriums on new charters, or against proposed funding changes deemed unfavorable to the sector.

But the administration’s efforts have ruffled feathers, such as among some state teachers’ unions seeking to restrain charter growth and the National Confeence of State Legislatures, a bipartisan Denver-based group for state lawmakers. The NCSL’s education committee in July approved a policy urging the Education Department to “refrain” from linking eligibility for federal aid to charter school laws.

“Charters are a reform idea that began as a state initiative and as part of some states’ overall reform plans and one that should stay that way,” the NCSL policy says.

Late last month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed a bill doubling that state’s charter cap, from 60 to 120. At the same time,the legislative deal included measures that have raised concerns among some charter supporters.

For one, Illinois charter schools formed before 2003 now must have 75 percent of their teaching staffs state-certified within four years. Another new measure allows charter teachers to unionize under the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board.

Tennessee increased its cap in June from 50 to 90 charters and expanded the types of students eligible to attend them. Eligibility had been limited to students not meeting state standards and thoseattending low-performing schools.

In Indiana, charter supporters staved off legislative proposals that were expected to severely constrain the growth of the charter sector.

Louisiana ended its cap on certain categories of charter schools, though the state was already far below the current ceiling of 70 such schools.

In any case, the legislation was opposed by some education groups, including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

The union’s president, Steve Monaghan, cited as one concern what he views as the inadequacy of retirement benefits for teachers who work in charter schools. In addition, he said, a cap “sends a message that we have not declared that charter education is the answer to everything that ails public education.”

Mr. Monaghan said he found it “frustrating” that the Obama administration was pressuring states to lift their caps. It’s a mistake, he argued, to impose a blanket policy solution across states.

‘Charter Authorizing 2.0’

Meanwhile, revisions to the Minnesota charter law will, among other provisions, require all authorizers—including current ones—to go through a new state approval process for renewable terms, and phase in more state funding for them.

“This is the beginning of ‘Charter Authorizing 2.0,’ ” said Jon H. Schroeder, a senior associate at Education Evolving, a think tank in St. Paul, Minn. He said the legislation will lead to “fewer, stronger authorizers, ... willing and able to take their job most seriously.”

Missouri also imposed new requirements to improve authorizing. And Florida added several provisions to improve the financial accountability of charters.

Overall, Mr. Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said he was encouraged by the outcome of legislative debates on charters, even as he saw some disappointments.

“Charter advocates should be quite pleased with the direction of things at the state level, especially considering the economic recession ... and the [negative] impact on state budgets,” factors that he said make the political climate for charters, and charter expansion, less hospitable.

But Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, another pro-charter group in Washington, said she sees relatively little to show this year for charter proponents in advancing key policy goals to help the sector thrive.

A few states made “modest improvements” in charter policy, Ms. Allen said, “while everybody else maintained the status quo or averted disaster in some cases.”

“It’s not like any of them hit a home run,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week

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