Charters, Among Other Things

This week’s National Journal question focuses on whether or not the President and Secretary are placing too much emphasis on charter schools.  My answer is here, and I’ve reprinted below:

I’m tempted to just write, “Yeah, what Chancellor Klein said,” and let that be the end of it. Charters are an essential part of the school reform toolkit, and it’s really hard to argue otherwise credibly. In many cases they have been the source of tremendous innovation, while driving student outcomes. Yes, there are lots of bad charter schools, but there are many more terrible traditional public schools, and you couldn’t get away with arguing for less emphasis on that traditional system (in most circles).

But there are a few important things to remember. One, I’ll echo my colleagues below who point out that charters are not a panacea. They’re not, and it’s dangerous to suggest that they should be. After 15 years of chartering, roughly 3% of all public school students are in charter schools, and while growth trajectories have accelerated lately, the quality trajectory hasn’t. Questions about how sustainability and growth interact should be taken seriously, as it will be hard to justify continued expansion if more and more families have experiences with weak schools. Education reforms move quickly from concept, to pilot, to “THE SOLUTION.” Charters are teetering on the edge of the solution chasm, and education loves to eat its young.

Two, Andy R makes a great point about the label “charter.” Whenever someone asks me if I like charter schools, I always ask them, “Do you like restaurants?” Chartering is merely a governance mechanism that may or may not remove some of the obstacles to quality professional practice. In the best cases, charters leverage that governance mechanism to do amazing – sometimes transformative – things. In the worst cases, they squander that potential advantage and do worse than comparable traditional public schools. We need to develop more nuance in our discussion of charter schools. What are the good ones doing that work? Are there particular policy milieus that are more conducive to quality than others? How do we increase the likelihood of quality?

Three, one of the great benefits of charters is the extrinsic impact they can and should have. One of the early promises of chartering was that we would learn great things that we could transfer to the traditional public schools. This happens far less than it should, and policies should do more to facilitate and incentivize that transfer. (My pet issue: more charter operators should take on the challenging work of school turnaround. It’s a beast of a task, and we need the talent.) The other extrinsic impact, though, is the pressure charters bring to bear on their neighboring traditional school systems. Obama and Duncan are right to emphasize charters, because chartering SHOULD force the hand of system leaders that are reluctant to make difficult choices. In the turnaround space, most of us love charters, because they can be a really good boogeyman for recalcitrant system leaders. This only works, however, if the President and Secretary stay strong on the new school improvement grant (1003g) requirements. So far, they’ve been exceptional on that front.

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