Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Smarter Charter Laws

Andrew Rotherham and Education Sector have issued a new policy analysis calling for changes in the way caps on charter schools operate.

Much focus related to charter schools and the actual chartering, is devoted to the simple number of schools. While legistures and interest groups debate the issue kids who want to attend charter schools are left waiting, in large numbers.
In New York, for instance, the debate over charter schools for years largely centered on whether to lift the cap of 100 schools, focusing little attention on broader issues of charter school policy. And while the Legislature debated the cap, 12,000 students were on waiting lists to attend existing public charter schools. In Illinois 10,000 are on waiting lists, and in Massachusetts, 16,000.
In three states alone, 38,000 students wait for an opportunity to attend a charter school.

Rotherham argues that instead of focusing on strictly the numbers, the states should be focusing on the quality of schools. Rotherham suggests exempting from the caps any charter school with a proven track record of success in the top 15 percent of public school performance, however measured. Also states would need to examine their chartering authoriteis and the ability of those authorities to oversee and manage charter schools. Finally, making charters a part of any effort at systemic school reform on the state and local level.

While Rotherham makes some good point and argues that his proposition is a "grand political bargain," I am not sure how legislatures can adopt this kind of a model. The attraction of a straight numbers cap is that it is easy to measure. Sure you may get into semantics regarding the number of "campuses," but largely a charter school counts as one charter--easy to measure and easy to police. When you start dealing with qualitative issues, you have increased the complexity of management exponentially, something many states and most localities are incapable of managing.

Rotherham admits that his proposal will favor established charter management organizations, like KIPP or Green Dot, and it is an important admission. But there is something missing in all the debate--even among charter schools, we are not really seeing any true innovation in teaching and school management.

While charters can be an agent of school reform, and a powerful agent, the reality is that we are not really innovating in any significant respect in relation how kids are taught. Part of the lack of innovation is the necessarily conservative approach that education practically demands. No parent wants to have their kid be the subject of an experiment in pedagogy or curricula. Furthermore, no charter authorizer wants to put their stamp of approval on something so different from what we see today for fear of being labeld as the people that allowed "that school to come into our neighborhood." As such, even charter schools themselves are reluctant to do more than tinker around the edges of instructional design and school management. They may impose more discipline in the classroom, try longer or shorter instructional periods, cross-disciplinary teaching, etc, but nothing really substantive or different from traditional public schools.

I am not advocating that every charter school be doing something radical with its approach to education, indeed there is little room or political stomach for such widespread innovation. But at the same time, if we are really going to talk about changing the way in which charter schools are authorized and managed, something must be done to encourage, and to a certain extent protect, the innovator, whether it be a "mom-and-pop" or "one-off" type of school or an innovation from one of the established charter management organizations. I refuse to believe that there are not ideas out there that can dramatically and radically alter the manner in which our children learn. Charter authorizors should allow these innovative schools an opportunity to get established and flourish, that would be a real policy change.

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