The Half-Broken Promise of Charter School Autonomy

Those of us at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are hawks when it comes to charter school accountability. We fervently believe that bad charter schools should be shuttered and that authorizers should be choosy when granting charters in the first place. This wasn’t always so; when the charter movement started we, like many other enthusiasts, believed in letting a thousand flowers bloom. And if some of those flowers turned out to be weeds, we’d just pluck them out of the soil.

Well, we learned through hard-earned experience (much of it on-the-ground in Southwest Ohio) that closing bad charter schools isn’t much easier than closing bad public schools–especially when poor families believe passionately that said schools are better and safer than any of their alternatives. Still, close bad schools we must if the movement is to prosper.

But all of the understandable attention to charter school “accountability” and results in recent years–including attention from President Obama–has left us feeling that the other part of the equation is being ignored. Yes, we need to hold charters accountable, but we also need to live up to our promise to provide them real autonomy over their day-to-day work. So we wondered, how are policymakers and charter school authorizers doing on that score?

According to a brand-new study conducted by Public Impact for Fordham, the answer is: not so great.

We estimate that the typical charter school in America today enjoys a middling level of autonomy–one we equate with a C-plus at best. Charters are particularly burdened in the area of teacher certification; thanks to NCLB’s “highly qualified teachers” mandate, many states are forcing charters to hire certified teachers even if they are officially supposed to have real freedom in the personnel domain. Furthermore,

Many schools also faced restrictions when establishing their governance boards, choosing a provider of special education services, or determining whether or not to participate in state retirement systems.

Schools enjoyed the greatest autonomy over curricula, school calendars, teacher work rules, procurement policies, and staff dismissals.

As authorizers, school districts and institutions of higher education typically imposed the most additional constraint while nonprofit organizations and state boards of education imposed the least.

To be clear, we don’t favor autonomy for autonomy’s sake. And the report is careful to clarify that we don’t want schools to have unlimited autonomy. For example, there need to be financial controls, civil rights protections, and up-to-snuff special education services in place. But if charter schools are to innovate and get better results than traditional public schools, they need to be allowed to do some things differently. And it too many places today, their hands are tied.

Read the report to learn more, and also check out the specific state-by-state information, all available here.

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