Schools educate kids; movements don’t

In a recent column for USA Today, Rick Hess and Michael McShane argued that “creeping bureaucratization and regulation are endangering the entire charter school movement.”  I’d argue the opposite: The real danger to the charter movement is lack of effective regulatory enforcement.

In their column, Hess and McShane put the best possible face on charter successes. “Objective analysis has also found charter schools to be successful, particularly with students from low income backgrounds,” they write. “In 2013, researchers at Stanford University studied charter schools in 27 states and found that, on average, students in charter schools outperform traditional public school students in reading, and do about the same in math. Students below the poverty line and African-American students were both found to fare better in charter than in public schools when their standardized test scores were disaggregated.”

Certainly there have been sectorwide improvements since 2009, when the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO, home of the same Stanford researchers cited above) issued a highly influential report, which found “a disturbing – and far reaching – subset of poorly performing charter schools.”  CREDO’s 2013 update notes important improvements and can indeed be summarized at the broadest level (as Hess and McShane have done) as positive.

Distinctions that matter: Kids are educated in individual schools, not by movements

But children are educated at individual schools, not by the broader charter movement, and CREDO’s 2013 report makes clear that such distinctions matter. Once you dig beyond average performance note the researchers, “there remain a worrying number of charter schools whose learning gains are … substantially worse than the local alternative.” Importantly, the CREDO reports also found that the quality of the charter schools varies significantly across states and cities.

The reality is that governance – the right governance, not bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake – matters immensely. And in the charter sector, effective governance sits with effective authorizers.

Why risk persists: Bad schools, not too much regulation

That warning should keep charter advocates on their toes. The persistent existence of poor performing charter schools (and operators who do things such as raise barriers for admission to their schools) does a disservice to families and children, and puts the entire charter movement – including the substantial number of high-quality schools and charter management operators (CMOs) operating in long underserved communities – at risk.

The reality is that governance – the right governance, not bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake – matters immensely. And in the charter sector, effective governance sits with effective authorizers.

Three rungs of charter school performance; three types of authorizers

Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) makes exactly that case as part of a Fordham-sponsored charter school policy wonk-a-thon.

“When one looks at CREDO’s 2009 and 2013 studies, three types of performance emerge,” Richmond writes. “First, states with the best charter school performance are those with good authorizers who have maintained high standards and have closed failing schools. See New York, Louisiana and Massachusetts. The lowest quality states have been those with authorizers who have had low standards. See Texas, Ohio and others. Second, states where overall charter performance is no different than traditional public schools have had random, often adversarial authorizing practices. See California…

“We [see] again and again that authorizers have a tremendous impact on the overall quality of a charter sector in a city or state.”

Yes, exactly. Authorizing matters. A lot.

Good governance serves kids, families — and strengthens the ed reform movement

Now let’s get back to Hess and McShane’s claim about the dangers of creeping regulation, starting with a simple question: Do states and cities with strong and active authorizers staunch the sector? Resoundingly, no. “Strong authorizer” cities like New Orleans and Washington, DC have some of the largest and highest performing charter school sectors in the nation. In 2013, CREDO found that compared to their peers in traditional public schools, New Orleans charter school students got an educational “benefit equivalent to about 28 more days of learning in reading and 72 additional days of learning in math.” In DC, charter school students got the “equivalent educational benefit each year of 99 extra days in school.”

I’d argue that these cities’ active regulation and oversight of their sectors – including rigorous application processes, willingness to close poor performers, and attempts to streamline the growth of high performers­  – not only provide better options for kids in those cities, but also protect the entire movement.

Hess and McShane write that “it is time we try something different.” I agree. We should stop painting the entire sector with a broad brush and, rather, look at the local context. We should be identifying lax authorizers that allow the continuance and proliferation of bad schools and stripping them of their ability to “oversee” schools. We should identify those authorizers that successfully protect the public good – and in doing so protect the movement – and celebrate them.