How to Save Charter Schools From the Beatdown

There seems to be an organized assault on charter schools. Legal challenges, bureaucratic barriers and smear campaigns all work to destroy their reputation, deplete their finances and diminish their accomplishments in the sight of lawmakers, city council members and school boards. If it keeps up, the role of charter schools in improving public education and helping families who need them may soon be diminished.

The Resistance

Right now, in 2018, it’s never been harder to get a charter school approved in Texas according to analysis by The Foundation for Excellence in Education. That’s in spite of the fact that charters have performed better than surrounding schools and have 141,000 students on waiting lists. The Nashville School Board hasn’t allowed a single charter school to open in the last four years. Just last month, school administrators recommended denial of the only charter school application that has been submitted this year. It’s no better in Memphis. There, the Shelby County School Board rejected all 18 charter school applications they received. In Tallahassee, Florida, school board members agonized over how they would defy the law and deny two charter school applications that met every legal requirement for approval. Last year, Palm Beach County tried the same thing and recently had their decisions overturned. New Jersey’s a battleground, too. In the Garden State there’s a coordinated effort between some policymakers and academics writing legislation and research papers to stop charters from growing because of concerns over racial segregation, even though housing policies and zoned neighborhood schools have had a far greater impact on school segregation. In many other places across the country, opposition to charter growth is mounting. There have been lawsuits in Washington state, Louisiana and Missouri. City councils are erecting barriers in Austin, Dallas, San Diego and Oakland. A Native American charter school in Oklahoma City Schools was denied this spring. I could go on. I’m not suggesting that every charter should automatically get approved. Some of these may be legitimately bad options. But with all this news in the last few months, it’s clear the resistance to charter schools is organized and getting stronger.

A Path Forward

It’s important to keep the ultimate goal in mind: better schools and more of them, particularly where they are needed and wanted. Charter schools can continue to play a major role in reaching that goal if we don’t smother them with legal fees, bureaucratic delays and misplaced blame. Part of the answer is a better public relations game. This may sound superficial to some, but pushing back against false or misleading narratives, showing people what makes charter schools great and demonstrating how they’ll fix errors or weaknesses in the system can make a real difference. Advocates need to remind people how district financial problems run far deeper than charter schools. (Like pension liabilities and debt obligations, failures to adapt to enrollment decline from district-to-district transfers and long-term demographic changes, etc.) In addition to calling it out, charter school leaders and advocates should also work to help districts solve those problems. District-charter collaboration is another part of the solution. School districts and states should consider policy changes that create an incentive to work together and share resources. That might look like sharing school buildings and facilities, or even sharing special education resources like teachers and tools. One of the original purposes for charter schools was to innovate in hopes that other schools might learn from their successes. But learning should happen in both directions. In Florida, 66 high-poverty schools got an A-rating this year. Some of them were charter schools, but many were traditional schools. How did they do it? Finally, charter schools should embrace accountability, but help state and local leaders recognize when accountability has gone too far. During the rapid growth of the ’90s, Texas learned that quality suffers when you don’t have the right policies in place. Then in 2012, a high-profile charter school scandal made things worse and soured much of the public and lawmakers against charter schools in general. The Lone Star State ratcheted down on the application process, squeezing approvals down to a slow drip. After a turbulent beginning, Texans needed stronger accountability. But the pendulum had swung too far in response. They were denying applications for a single error in a 400-page application, or for using the wrong color ink. The ExcelinEd report released last month recommends bureaucrats ease up on the rigid requirements, break up the mammoth application into smaller sections that can be completed in stages, and take some of the politics out of the process. The same type of analysis could be done in each of the 44 states that have charter school laws. Where accountability is lax, or several duds slip through and get approved, we should call for tighter policies, but not so tight that good schools are snubbed out before they get a chance. Charter schools offer an alternative to families who need them. On average, they perform as well as traditional schools, but what’s remarkable is that they do it while serving more students of color, and more students who have to fight their way past obstacles of poverty, trauma and language to learn reading, writing and math. The issues that gave birth to the charter school movement haven’t changed. Parents still need options. Schools still struggle to serve the poor. And too many children are graduating unprepared for what comes next. Despite the resistance, charter schools can strengthen their position and become a more prominent part of the solution if they can improve their public image, work with districts to solve problems and embrace commonsense accountability.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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