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Race to the Top and Charter School Autonomy

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Now that the fanfare of selecting the winning states for Race to the Top is behind us, we turn to the trickier business of implementing its requirements. An early flashpoint: how implementation of Race to the Top ironically could impair the autonomy of charter schools.

In New York State, implementation is being managed by the New York State Education Department (SED), which is under the control of a state Board of Regents appointed by the state legislature (not the governor). The Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, State Education Commissioner David Steiner, and Senior Deputy Commissioner John King Jr. each are unabashedly pro-charter.

Yet, in an SED Memorandum of Understanding that charter schools were asked to sign earlier this month -- in order to be eligible for Race to the Top dollars -- charter schools were asked to sign onto a set of requirements that would impair charter school autonomy.

In addition to serving as president of a think tank, I also founded the Brighter Choice Foundation, which supported the creation of 11 charter schools in Albany, which now serve 25 percent of students in New York's capital city. These schools routinely rank among the highest performing public schools in Albany.

Up front, let me make clear that the charter schools in Albany have long embraced the key principles of Race to the Top, including the extensive use of classroom data to inform classroom instruction and also to serve as a very large factor in teacher evaluations. And all of the schools happen to exceed the standards set by the Department's memorandum of understanding, including that at least 40 percent of teacher and principal evaluations should be based on student achievement measures. We didn't need Race to the Top or SED to implement these best practices.

But, that does not get around the inappropriateness of what SED is attempting. The New York charter school law very specifically prohibits the State Education Department and Board of Regents from imposing additional requirements on charter schools outside of health, safety, civil rights, and student assessments.

Back in 1998, I was involved in the discussions around the drafting of this specific language which was meant to protect the ability of charter schools to innovate and protect them from regulatory overreach from SED and other agencies.

Coincidentally, this week a State Court of Appeals decision was handed down blocking the State Labor Department from imposing prevailing-wage regulations on charter schools, another example of attempted regulatory overreach. The case was brought by the Brighter Choice Foundation.

SED simply has no authority to set thresholds for the use of data in teacher evaluations in charter schools. Nor do they have the authority to require us to group teachers by four categories, or require such annual evaluations to be "a significant factor" for "promotion, retention, tenure determination and supplemental compensation." Nor do they have the authority to require charters to pursue "the removal of teachers and principals receiving two consecutive annual ratings of 'ineffective' after receiving supports from improvement plans."

Charter schools are exempt from these one-size-fits-all mandates. The fact that many charter schools, including those in Albany, already do much of what SED proposes is no excuse for mandating that it be done the SED way. Charter schools were authorized to innovate with a great variety of approaches, not to follow mandates from SED.

Lacking the authority to impose, SED instead is trying to bribe (they might say, incentivize) charter schools into accepting these mandates by offering some token Race to the Top dollars.

No ill will is intended by SED's leaders. They truly are pro-charter school. But, in an unintended consequence of Race to the Top, as states seek to implement its highly prescriptive set of favored policies, charter school autonomy may become an innocent victim. This is ironic since charter schools are one of the reforms favored by Race to the Top.

Before this goes any further, in my view, it's time to draw a line in the sand. I've urged fellow charter school leaders to turn down Race to the Top money. Autonomy and innovation are too important to the mission of charter schools to toss overboard to get a few Race to the Top dollars.