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Congress Should Promote Charter Schools

Sunday, April 6, 2014

States are inhibiting educational entrepreneurship; Congress should step in and provide funding to states to facilitate further charter school growth.

There is bipartisan agreement that the American economy needs entrepreneurship. There is bipartisan agreement that our education system could stand some improvement. Charter schools are a development that addresses both of these needs. Entrepreneurs have been putting energy and innovation into the charter school effort, and we are starting to see positive results.1 Now is the time for Congress to provide funding to states to set up the apparatus needed to facilitate further charter school growth.

As of now, the progress of charter schools is very uneven. In some locations, such as Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and the state of Arizona, charters are educating a large portion of K-12 students. In other locations, such as Maryland and Virginia, charters are hardly a factor at all.

The legal environment determines whether charter schools thrive or are stunted. Some states inhibit educational entrepreneurship by making it difficult for founders to obtain accreditation or facilities. Some locations freeze the number of charter schools at a low level. Many require charter applicants to obtain approval from adversarial public school boards. Others restrict land use in ways that effectively make it impossible for a charter school to find facilities.

The recent battle over charter schools in New York City illustrates both the problem and a potential solution. Newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to exercise a personal vendetta against charter school operator Eva Moskowitz by trying to close her Success Academy charters. This backfired, leading to legislation, passed at the state level with support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, designed to protect charter school entrepreneurship while at the same time demanding rigorous evaluation of charter school performance.

The federal legislation would be designed to encourage states to create an environment in which charter schools are easily launched and easily shut down.

Federal legislation could achieve a similar purpose. It would provide grants to states to support the administrative apparatus needed to ensure that charter school operators are given both a fair opportunity to offer educational alternatives and timely audits to ensure that they meet their responsibilities to students and parents. The grants should be sufficient to cover much more than the cost of this administrative apparatus. That way, recalcitrant states will have a strong incentive to adopt best practices for approving and evaluating charter schools.

The administrative apparatus includes:

—    a body to evaluate charter applications promptly and reasonably. This requires staff to develop policies and procedures and to evaluate applications.  This body should also have the authority to issue findings to schools concerning issues of malfeasance or poor performance.  Finally, it will have the authority to shut down schools that are unable to correct serious deficiencies.

—    an organization to work with local communities to enable charters to find facilities.

—    an organization to audit charter schools, making sure that funds are not misappropriated.

—    an organization to gather performance information on charter schools and to make this data available to parents so that they can make informed choices.

The federal legislation would be designed to encourage states to create an environment in which charter schools are easily launched and easily shut down. Making it easy to start a charter school ensures that entrepreneurial energy and innovation will not be stifled. However, the ability to shut down poorly performing charter schools is at least as important. The benefits of charter schools cannot be realized if low-performing charter schools are not quickly identified and their shortcomings addressed.

It is vital that the criteria for charter evaluation be focused on results, not on enforcing particular educational methods or techniques.

To receive funds under the law, a state would have to set up the apparatus described above, including an oversight board for charter schools. One mission of the board would be to encourage new entry and competition. The board should have a streamlined process by which charter schools can obtain accreditation and facilities with which to operate. That process should provide for a level playing field, not favoring government-run schools over charters schools, or national charter school companies over local entrepreneurs.

The other mission of the state board would be to establish criteria for evaluating charter schools and conducting such evaluations. New charter schools should be audited early and often. Once they become established, charters can be audited less frequently, although performance data should still be collected and published. While schools should have an opportunity to address adverse audit findings, the board should have the power to shut down schools that fail to take prompt action to deal with serious issues.

Of course, it is vital that the criteria for charter evaluation be focused on results, not on enforcing particular educational methods or techniques. The state board must respect the autonomy of charter schools and the choices made by parents.

There is a risk that government encouragement of charter schools could turn into a stifling embrace. However, carefully crafted federal legislation could serve to advance entrepreneurship in education.

Arnold Kling is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

FURTHER READING: Kling also writes “GDP and Measuring the Intangible,” “The Recipe for Good Government,” and “Fantasy Despot Syndrome and Healthcare.gov.” Jay Matthews contributes “‘We Don’t Want Your Money’.”

Image By Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

Footnote

1.    For more information on the current state of charter schooling in America, see Karl Zinsmeister, From Promising to Proven: A Wise Giver's Guide to Expanding on the Success of Charter Schools, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.

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