Sara Mead and Andrew J. Rotherham, two of my favorite educational researchers, have inspired me to save the charter school movement with five brilliant if perhaps too far-sighted suggestions for reform.
The Washington-based think tank Education Sector www.educationsector.org has just published their paper, “A Sum Greater Than the Parts: What States Can Teach Each Other About Charter Schooling.” They may be horrified by what I have done with their facts and insights, but I think my ideas will push charters in the right direction — more good ones and fewer bad ones.
In theory, charter schools are a great idea. There are now more than 4,000 of them with more than 1 million students in 40 states and the District. These independent public schools give smart educators with fresh ideas a chance to show what they can do without the deadening hand of the local school system bureaucracy around their necks. They also give public school parents more choice. The problem is, as one former state charter school official told me, there are a lot of loons out there starting charter schools. We don’t seem to be able to get rid of their loony schools as easily as the original advocates of charter schools promised. That is one reason why charter schools, despite including some of the best public schools I have ever seen, do no better on average than regular public schools in raising student achievement.
Here are my suggestions for fixing that situation, based largely on what I learned from Mead and Rotherham:
1. Stop letting local school boards authorize charters. Mead, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, and Rotherham, co-director of Education Sector and a member of the Virginia Board of Education, used a grant from the Annie E.Casey Foundation to analyze reports they oversaw on charter schools in California, Minnesota, Arizona, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Florida and Michigan and four cities: New York, Indianapolis, Chicago and the District. They conclude that “perhaps the most significant lesson of the charter school movement to date” is that the number and quality of charter schools depend on who does the authorizing and how well they do it. State school boards, universities and independent bodies like the D.C. Public Charter School Board appear to do a better job of authorizing charters than local school boards, which see charters as competition for students, funds and prestige. California, Colorado and Florida have built strong charter systems with local school boards as the prime authorizers, but only by creating alternative authorizers for charter proposals that get turned down by local school boards.
The complete report is available here: Education Sector Reports: Charter School Series
A Sum Greater Than the Parts: What States Can Teach Each Other About Charter Schooling, by Sara Mead and Andrew Rotherham.