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Curmudgucation: What Charter Advocates Want From States

What exactly would charter proponents like to see in state charter regulations? As it turns out, we don't have to guess, because the National Alliance of Public [sic] Charter Schools regularly publishes a ranking of the states based on the "strength" of their charter laws. This year's edition is the 11th, and it's available right now! Woot!

If you are concerned about the rankings, I can give you some highlights. Indiana, Colorado and Washington come in at spots 1, 2 and 3. Florida (State motto: "Making sure there is no public school system for Certain People's grandchildren") is down at 7. Maryland, Kansas, and Alaska are at the bottom. Five states are not on the list at all--no charter laws. There are some other surprises, like Ohio at a measly 23.
 

You can check to see where your state ranks, but for our purposes, the interesting part here is the actual criteria used-- the list, in effect, of the qualities of the NAPCS dream state. We launch the good stuff right after an intro from CEO Nina Rees and Todd Ziebarth, Senior VP of State Advocacy and Support. I have got to get some fancier titles going here at the Curmudgucation Institute.

There are 21 "essential" components for "strong" charter law. This is what charter advocates want your state to put in place. I'm going to run down the list, looking at why the want these items and why they are bad ideas.

1) No caps on charter growth. The charter industry would like the freedom to go after as much market share as possible. But that's a recipe for chaos and instability, which leads to a lot of waste, even if it avoids the kind of flat-out fraud that the industry often seems to attract.

2) A variety of charter schools allowed. "Including new startups and public school conversions." So not "variety" as in "many kinds of pedagogical approaches" as "many ways to get the business launched and structured."

3) Non-District Authorizers. Charter fans dislike the set-up that requires them to get permission to operate from actual public school systems-- the people whose blood they're going to be siphoning off, and who also know the difference between an effective school and a con job. The school district authorizer set-up provides maximum protection for the taxpayers whose money is on the line, and it has driven charter advocates to spend buttloads of money to get friendly faces on those boards. Authorizers who aren't connected to local taxpayers and voters are better for charters because, well, spending someone elses's money is always easier. This is why mayoral control, or college/university authorizers, or even some kind of state board with friendly political appointees is preferred.

4) Authorizer and Overall Accountability System Required. The requirement here is that the authorizer has to want to authorize, thereby ruling out those hostile local school boards. It also bars folks who do the opposite of the charter-friendly-face-on-the-school-board trick and try to get themselves on an authorizer board to slow down charter growth. It's okay for charter fans to try to pull off an inside job, but completely not okay for public school supporters to do the same. There's also a bit here about a state oversight group that makes sure authorizers are using "objective data" so that they don't have to put up with any "we're denying your charter because it's a terrible idea' nonsense.

5) Adequate authorizer funding. This is actually not a bad idea. If you don't fund the authorizers well, they will depend on their authorized charters for income, which is bad news. Of course, it also means more taxpayer dollars feeding this parallel school system.

6) Transparent Charter School Application, Review and Decision-making Process. If there's anything charters understand, it's the power of transparency. You can't contest, complain about, or try to reverse what you can't see. That explains both why charters resist any transparency about their own operations, but demand it for the processes that decide their own fate. I actually think transparency here is a good thing, but what's good for the goose is good for the charter management organization.

7) Performance-based Charter School Contracts Required. Charters would prefer to be judged on their student test scores-- and not much of anything else. Lay out in writing what academic and operational performance expectations they must meet, and that's it. This is one of the true differences between charter schools and public schools, where everyone is held accountable for a wide variety of things, some of which are never announced ahead of the moment that someone yells at you for not meeting them. This contract approach protects  charters from any number of possible screw-ups and hard-to-quantify qualities like school culture ("You may think our school culture is oppressive and abusive, but there's nothing about that in our performance contract, so hush"). It is another of the ways that the business-minded folks of the charter world try to force hard-edged quantifiable results on the fuzzy world of education. I understand the impulse, but that's not how school works.

8) Comprehensive charter school monitoring and data collection processes. More data fetishizing, designed to collect cold hard answers to the contracted items in 7 (and to exclude any other concerns that folks want to bring up).

9) Clear processes for renewal, nonrenewal, and revocation decisions. Again, the power of transparency is respected again. Just for me, however, and not for thee.

10) Transparency regarding educational services providers. I have no beef here. Every cent the charter spends should be spent in broad, transparent daylight.

11) Fiscally and legally autonomous schools with independent charter school boards. This is the essence of the modern corporate charter school-- the dream is that it is a business, run like a business, and just as autonomous as a business and answerable to nobody except, sort of, its "customers" which   charter fans prefer to define as "parents." Except that the "customers" of education are all the human beings in the country.

12) Clear student enrollment and lottery procedure. "which must be followed by all charter schools."

13) Automatic exemptions from many state and district laws and regulations. Well, "except for those covering health, safety, civil rights, student accountability, employee criminal history checks, open meetings, freedom of information requirements, and generally accepted accounting principles." That leaves quite a few, but if the really important one hasn't hit you yet, let's move on to

14) Automatic collective bargaining exemption. The dream is little right to work schools.

15) Multi-school charter contracts and/or boards allowed. In other words, charter operators should be free. This allows investors and owners to make some serious money, while giving students the chance to attend schools run by people on the other side of the state. What fun is setting up a charter school operation if you can't scale up to a mini-empire?

16) Extracurricular and Interschool activities eligibility and access. Ah, yes. The old free rider clause, giving charters the freedom to avoid costly "extras" that families value so much by simply sending students to use the public school program. Worried that your kid won't be able to get that sportsball scholarship if he goes to No Sport Charter? Don't worry-- the public school still has to take him. Meanwhile, the charter gets to offer less without having to pay the price of being less competitive in the marketplace.

17) Clear identification of special ed responsibilities. Sigh. This is probably a good idea, because gaming special ed has been a popular way for charters to make a bunch of money. So maybe extra clarity would help. Or maybe it would just make it easier for charters to game the system because they can see more clearly where the loopholes are.

18) Equitable  operational funding and equal access to all state and federal categorical funding. Charters want full access the various rivers of state and federal tax dollars flowing through the land of education. And they want it in a "timely" manner. Gee, remember the days when c harters bragged that one of their great strengths was that they didn't need all that money like public schools did?

19) Equitable access to capital funding and facilities. For many charter operators, the charter industry is all about dealing in real estate. They would like some public tax dollars, either directly or indirectly, to help them with that. Help them buy or build a facility with public money, or hand them a building that public money built-- either will be fine.

20) Access to relevant employee retirement systems. With the option to participate just like a public school. This seems like a minimal protection of the interests of the charter staff, and "work here and get no pension" seems like a tough recruiting pitch for charters, though I'd be curious to know how this works out given the high rate of churn and burn in charter staff.

21) Full-time virtual charter school provisions. So the charter dream state includes cyber charters? This seems like a point they might want to rethink, given that even charter fans acknowledge that cybers are pretty bad at what they do.

So there it is-- that's what charter folks want in a state. Taken together, strikes me as an attempt to create a separate reality where they can operate a business free from the vagaries and fuzziness that is naturally part of the attempt to educate young humans. Yes, there's the emphasis on making it easier for them to start charter businesses and harder for other people to hold them accountable and even interfere with their businessy pursuits.

It's not that I think doing things in a businessy way is inherently wrong or bad (though there is a whole conversation to be had about the way that education reformsters and the charter industry have generally chosen Taylorism over Deming). But the business way of doing things is appropriate for businesses, and public education is not a business, and no amount of "strong charter lawmaking" can turn it into one. It makes no more sense than if I walked into Ford and said , "I'm going to take over this business, but I think I'd like it better if we ran it like a school instead of like a company."

At any rate, you have the list now. We know that charters can survive without all twenty-one components in place, but when you hear folks in your state talking about strengthening charter law, this is the list they have in mind. Keep your eyes peeled.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...