For many governors, education "reform" means more charter schools, along with private school vouchers. With the governors' support, charter authorizers are receiving record numbers of charter school applications this year.
But there is growing evidence of significant problems with states' charter experiments. Data consistently show most charter schools perform the same or worse than host district schools, and many charters rank among states' persistently lowest performing schools. Studies also show that charter schools are not serving students comparable to those enrolled in district schools, particularly very low income students, students with disabilities and those learning English.
Financial mismanagement and fiscal irregularities among charters is a recurring problem in many states. For example, in New Jersey since 1996, nearly one-third of all authorized charter schools have surrendered their charters or had their charters revoked, mostly due to mismanagement.
Also, because many states require authorizers to perform only perfunctory evaluations, little is known about what works -- and what doesn't -- in charter schools. Lessons learned about both how successful practices might help improve public schools and how to avoid or correct unsuccessful practices are lost. And, charters are not required, typically, to disclose contributions, grants, and other support from private and foundation sources, giving some select charters a distinct advantage over other charters and district schools.
Put simply, an overhaul of many states' charter school laws is essential to make certain that these schools, first, do no harm and, second, operate effectively and with full accountability for performance. They should also make a solid contribution to the overall improvement of public education in their host districts -- for every student, not just those attending charters.
To address these problems, legislators should strongly consider and enact, as appropriate to their state, the following improvements to their charter laws:
1) Encouraging Innovation: Charter schools were intended to establish innovative programs to serve challenging student populations and needs. To renew this focus, state laws should encourage charter schools that can help meet the needs of the most vulnerable students. Priorities could include multi-district charters that strive to serve a socioeconomically or racially diverse student body, charters that develop model programs for students at-risk of dropping out, charters that educate special education students in inclusive settings, and charters that pilot innovative programs for English learners.
2) Requiring a Local Say on Charters: Charter schools have a significant impact on the districts from which they draw students. Local communities must be empowered to decide whether a charter school is in their best interests. Some form of local involvement in the decision to create or expand charter schools should be included in each state's charter law.
3) Serving Comparable Student Populations: States should require charters to serve a cross-section of the district's student demographics, including low-income students, English language learners, and students with varying disability classifications. In addition, the law should include a requirement that charters failing to enroll students with demographics comparable to their host district(s) develop and implement a corrective action plan. This may include altering the lottery mechanism to recruit and attract underserved student populations.
4) Maintaining Waiting Lists and Documenting Transfers: Charter schools should be required to maintain and publish up-to-date waiting lists for admission, including the demographics of those on these lists. Charters should also be required to collect the data and report on all student transfers during the school year, including student demographics, reasons for transfer out, and information on subsequent educational placements and test scores after leaving the school.
5) Improving Charter Evaluations: Each state's charter law should require the state education department, or other objective organization, to perform thorough, annual evaluations of each charter school. The evaluation should address academic and fiscal performance, including the school's progress in meeting the goals and objectives in its specific charter. In addition, charter laws should mandate periodic, independent, and comprehensive evaluations, including recommendations for improving program implementation, every three to five years.
6) Closing Persistently Underperforming Charters Many charter laws contain no standards for closing charters that continually fail to meet state or federal performance benchmarks. The law should set clear criteria for shutting down failing charters. Charter revocation should also be authorized for a persistent failure to make reasonable and appropriate efforts to serve student populations comparable to the district.
7) Establishing Education Collaborations: Both charter and district schools, especially in "high need" or low-wealth districts, require high quality assistance to improve instruction, collect relevant data, evaluate programs, and identify effective practices. State laws should direct the establishment of "education collaborations" between districts and charters to support improvement of instructional programs, best practices, data collection and evaluation.
The number of charter schools is increasing significantly in many states, with growing debate about their proper place in public education systems. It is incumbent on legislators to demand these schools be fully accountable to the public, and operate effectively and equitably in the communities they serve. After all, the states have the responsibility to ensure students get the quality education they deserve and are entitled to receive, however their schools are governed locally.