Across Indianapolis, hundreds of students are getting help navigating remote learning while school campuses remain closed.
Charter Regulation: How Much Is Too Much?
In a recent USA Today piece, Rick Hess and Mike McShane blasted what they see as a trend toward charter school re-regulation. Rick and Mike argue that charters are losing their ability to innovate thanks to lots of new rules and restrictions imposed by government. I’m with them in spirit, but the specifics matter a lot.
It’s true that charter re-regulation has been happening for a long time. But regulations are generally not an effort by evil lawmakers to create more bureaucracy and stifle innovation. People usually pass laws as a way to deal with real problems, of which there are plenty in the charter sector. The sector will not help itself, or children, by wishing away those problems, or those laws.
Rick and Mike point to a few examples: 200-page charter applications, new requirements in New Orleans that charters must participate in common enrollment systems and common discipline policies, and the application of statewide teacher evaluation systems to charters in some states.
Yes, charter applications are getting longer. This is because the 20-page applications of earlier years proved to be insufficient for screening out people who had no real plan for educating kids. People are now being asked to provide a lot of specifics about their plans for serving kids with special needs, qualifications of their proposed board members, and so on. It’s reasonable to ask whether a certain level of specificity is necessary. But it’s quite possible that such rigorous screening helps ensure people can deliver on a five-year public contract to serve kids. Who cares how long the application is? What matters is what’s in it.
Yes, charter schools in New Orleans have less freedom to run their enrollment and discipline systems as they please. The reason is that turning in 20 applications to different schools on different timelines made no sense for parents or for schools. Some parents won lotteries in five different schools and, to keep their options open, tied up waitlist spots for months into the school year. Low-income parents had the hardest time “working the system.” As for discipline policies, some charter schools were unnecessarily expelling students, putting too much pressure on other schools in the system to deal with all the kids with behavior problems. Now that charter schools in New Orleans are the system, with a few common operating rules they have to figure out how to make their schools work for all kids.
And yes, statewide teacher evaluation systems should not apply to charter schools. That violates an essential principle of charter school autonomy—and it’s not like one-size-fits-all state evaluation systems are a great idea anyway (see recent thoughts on that here and here). But is the issue as dire as Rick and Mike suggest? Rick and Mike mention New York. There, though, while charters must report what’s in their evaluation systems, they don’t have to adopt the statewide system.
Charter schools will continue to be re-regulated because there are real issues that need to be resolved around quality and equity. This is especially true as charters take on significant market share. It doesn’t make sense to oppose all regulation. The real challenge is to make sure that the new rules do not re-create the onerous regulatory systems of the past.
Maybe it’s time we look for new ideas about how to assess the true costs of regulation. There have been commissions set up just for this purpose for other sectors. They take a look at every new proposed regulation and make a determination based on established principles and data around costs and benefits.
We also need better research and evidence to inform Rick’s and Mike’s concerns. Is it true, for example, that charter schools are becoming less innovative with more regulation? Do most schools in New Orleans look like KIPP because innovation was stifled through regulation, or because charter leaders aren’t themselves innovating, or because those schools work?
Let’s take Rick’s and Mike’s prod seriously and keep a close eye on creeping rules. But let’s not pretend, either, that sitting back and complaining about too much regulation will be good for the charter movement or for kids.
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