Three Fixes for the Charter Marketplace

This is the fifth in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the others here, here, here, and here.

ToolsLast time around, we argued that America’s charter marketplace has done a mediocre job of matching supply with demand and ensuring solid school quality. We fingered three (of many) sources of these partial market failures: too few (and, in some locales, too many) charter schools; weak consumer information; and distracted suppliers.

Due to these shortcomings, we concluded that today’s marketplace isn’t up to the challenge of ensuring strong academic achievement and other important education outcomes. The policies that constrain charter markets are part of the problem—but not the whole story.

Even after twenty-five years, charters in most places remain an alien implant in the body of American public education, and all sorts of immune reactions persist. Still, we can treat some of these symptoms while also repairing glitches in the original policy design.

Our book suggests a number of fixes across ten categories: statutory, regulatory, accountability, fiscal, human capital, informational, community engagement and race, help for families and students, help for schools, and leadership. Here, we focus on three repairs that dovetail with the trio of challenges we addressed in the last post.

Better consumer information: Where charter supply exceeds demand—often as a result of indiscriminate authorizing and loose limits on schools—families have lots of choices. Most parents understandably want to send their kids to good schools; but how are they to identify and select those that will give their daughters and sons the best education? (Creating an optimal match between charter and child is also a struggle for parents in places where there is no supply/demand imbalance.) For kids to end up in schools that serve them well—and for this market to function healthily—parents need to be smart consumers with access to accurate, understandable, and reasonably comprehensive information. They also need mechanisms to make “school choosing” relatively easy and fair, such as one-stop-shopping arrangements, common enrollment systems, school fairs, and more.

State report cards on schools are a start, and macro-efforts like the admirable work of provide sound, searchable, user-friendly information online (in a couple of places, they also offer face-to-face help). But because a family’s choices are bounded by what schools are geographically workable, it’s hugely beneficial to have on-the-ground assistance in particular communities.

In the nation’s capital, LearnDC is a one-stop website with plentiful information about every charter (and district) school. It also sponsors an annual EdFest where families can learn more in person about multiple schools and sends staffers to canvass neighborhoods in cooperation with community-based groups. Another huge benefit for school-shopping families in the District is the common application and lottery process called MY School DC.

Another example comes from Houston, where Families Empowered was founded in 2009 by TFA alumna Colleen Dippel to help parents make good school matches for their children. It helps them understand their options and choose the right schools through a number of tools. Once they settle on a preference, it helps them navigate the application process. (Houston has no common lottery, but its best-known networks of high-performing charters—KIPP and YES-PREP—each run a single lottery for their multiple schools.) Families Empowered will readily match children with high-quality district, charter, and private schools. Each summer, it also runs a bilingual call center to aid parents still searching for schools.

New Orleans is piloting the work of a promising outfit called EdNavigator. But more is needed. School choice will never work optimally for the families that need it most until every community that supplies choices also supplies kindred sources of assistance.

Adequate, fair funding: University of Arkansas analysts report that the typical charter gets 28 percent less funding per pupil than nearby district schools, in large part because few charters share in the locally generated portion of K–12 funding. This uneven playing field often sets charters up for failure and leads to an unhealthy market. We reject the view that more money automatically yields better education; but no school can afford to deliver an excellent product in a pleasant setting without reasonable operating dollars.

It’s a simple fact that charters in most places need more equitable funding. The few places that already treat charters fairly demonstrate that this goal need not be a pipe dream. The same University of Arkansas study found only tiny charter/district funding disparities in Tennessee and New Mexico, both of which also give charters access to facilities funding. In Houston, charters actually receive $650 more for each pupil than do their district counterparts. Such places are exceptions, however: Across most of the country, charters get the short end of the fiscal stick.

The quantity of dollars isn’t the whole story either. Just as important are the mechanisms by which those dollars are allocated. For the market to thrive, children who change schools must be able to take their money with them, including whatever added dollars are tied to individual circumstances (e.g., disability, disadvantage, and limited English proficiency). A few districts have begun to move toward this sort of “backpack” funding. For this change to work well, however, all the local, state, and federal dollars that apply to a given child’s education need to be in the backpack—and that’s a goal no jurisdiction has yet reached.

Getting the law right: State laws set the ground rules by which charters (and their marketplaces) operate. Almost every state now has some sort of charter law on the books. Some work far better than others, however, and many need revising.

The biggest single policy challenge is to end restrictions on the supply of charter schools in the many places where they limit what’s possible—but to do so without forfeiting quality control. No marketplace can function well without a sufficient supply of whatever it’s providing. On the other hand, caps on charter and pupil numbers, combined with tough-minded authorizing, are part of the reason why schools in a few places have done especially well on achievement metrics. (On the third hand, such limits have led to long waiting lists and many desperate families.) So this has to be done carefully, with an eye toward both supply and quality.

Getting that balance right is tough. Great schools need plenty of autonomy, but such freedom is safer and politically easier to confer when lawmakers and taxpayers can be sure that charter authorizers are tending conscientiously to quality control. So far, that picture is mixed, albeit improving. NACSA annually surveys the hundred or so largest authorizers (which oversee about 70 percent of all charters) regarding how many of the organization’s twelve “essential practices” they actually employ. In 2014, 63 percent had implemented at least eleven of them, a 50 percent increase from the year before. That’s movement in the right direction, for sure. But what about all those other schools and authorizers?

We at Fordham have lived through a long, slow, painful—but ultimately successful—effort to repair Ohio’s charter law, which was full of loopholes and lax provisions bearing on schools and authorizers alike. Those repairs still need to be implemented, and Ohio’s shaky charter funding needs to be strengthened, but we now see light at the end of that tunnel. It wasn’t easy. But getting charter law right is an obvious prerequisite for enabling the market to function as it should—a market, we now understand, that consists not just of schools and parents, but also of authorizers, support organizations, information providers, and more.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Brandon L. Wright

This post originally appeared on Flypaper.

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