Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.
Chartering Schools: We Have to Get It Right
A core insight behind the school reform movement is that no single entity should both operate a school and be the sole judge of its performance. Any entity, public or private, that both operates and judges is in conflict of interest, and can be expected to accept levels of performance and service to children that are less than the best possible.
This isn’t just a theoretical possibility: traditional school districts regularly hide evidence of bad performance and continue supporting weak schools. They also make deals with powerful constituents, including influential parents and organized teachers, that put poor and minority children—their least influential constituents—at a disadvantage. That’s what the recent Vergara decision in California was all about.
The original argument for chartering schools was that it removed conflict of interest. Authorizers would have only one interest—supporting quality schools—and would not make deals on the side with other constituents that burdened the schools. Schools then had the freedom to put all their energy into providing effective instruction for the kids they enrolled. School operators would also know that the authorizer would support them indefinitely if they served students well, but pull the charter of a school that made bad instructional decisions or was unable to “jell” as an organization.
But there was always a nagging doubt about some charter authorizers, especially those that funded themselves by charging fees to the schools they oversaw. Under these circumstances, authorizers could be reluctant to pull a mediocre school’s charter since that meant less income for the authorizer. For the same reason, some authorizers might accept mediocre charter groups to run schools. In a situation where there were many authorizers with similar incentives, schools could avoid authorizers that were demanding and affiliate with more indulgent ones.
Chester Finn was the first to point out this danger, citing Ohio where almost any nonprofit could become an authorizer, and school districts could enhance their income by chartering schools in other localities.
Of course, the “multiple authorizers” idea arose to solve a real problem: if school districts monopolized charter authorizing, most would opt to protect the schools they operated from competition and turn down all proposals, no matter how good they were.
But now it is obvious that Finn was right. Last week, CRPE reported on localities where there is a lot of school choice but not much improvement. Our report, Making School Choice Work, focused on Detroit, but the problems it documented are evident in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and other cities as well: charter authorizers with a conflict of interest can tolerate weak and ineffective schools and discourage quality school providers from entering a community, just as school districts can. In those states, many charters are authorized by distant districts or other institutions that have no insight into local needs, and no stake in whether schools overall improve.
In these places, all entities that oversee public schools, whether school districts or charter authorizers, experience the conflict of interest described above. The Cleveland district is fighting its own conflict of interest, trying to redefine itself as the sponsor of the best school possible for every child. But this is an uphill fight when weak schools can always flee to the protection of an indulgent charter authorizer.
This arrangement squanders the opportunity to create better schools for children in great need. It also destroys the reputation of charter schools. In Ohio, engaged city leaders I’ve interviewed acknowledge the need for new schools and new providers, but distrust chartering as a way to get them, saying, “charters are low quality.”
This is a tragedy, because chartering can, and usually does, create the right relationship between an authorizer that cares only about performance and a school that is both free and accountable. Americans can’t turn around their public education system without chartering.
But, we have to acknowledge that not all chartering arrangements work and that having many authorizers in a state or locality is not always a good thing. It should not be easy to get or keep a charter, or for an indulgent authorizer to keep operating. Everything depends on getting the incentives right. If the incentives are right, there can be many authorizers or just a few.
For starters, pro-charter analysts and policy advocates need to abandon the claims that the more chartering, the faster, and by the largest number of authorizers, the better. Legislators responsible for the no-accountability charter authorization statutes in states like Ohio and Michigan need to hear from the charter community that these laws need to be tightened up. And, those engaged with reform initiatives in big cities need to recognize the damage done in some places, and send a more nuanced message.
Chartering is an indispensable tool to allow educators to do their best work and attract new talent to public education. But it won’t work if the gatekeepers—charter authorizers—are compromised by financial or political dependency on the schools they oversee. When the incentives for schools and authorizers are tangled up, there is no warrant for saying, “the more charters the better.”
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