This week, education reformers on both sides of the aisle are banding together to celebrate "National Charter Schools Week" in a bipartisan Kumbaya moment. President Obama issued an official proclamation stating that charter schools "can show what is possible — schools that give every student the chance to prepare for college and career, and to develop a love of learning that lasts a lifetime." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tweeted a simple text picture stating "I support quality charters."
The comity is so strong the U.S. House of Representative is expected to pass a bill Friday. The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, (H.R. 10), is designed to provide federal funds for successful charter schools to encourage their expansion across the nation.
But before celebrating another expansion of school choice, there should be serious reflection from advocates for innovation in education about the compromises such expansion is requiring.
Charters were conceived as an alternative to underperforming public schools. This allowed educators and entrepreneurs space to create new schools and new teaching models. The fact that education dollars were now allowed to go to schools chosen by parents and children generated competition, better matched students' interests and needs, and gave teachers the opportunity to exercise their own judgment and be accountable for the results.
Slow to grow at first, charter school enrollment has doubled since 2006. Today more than 2.2 million K-12 students are enrolled in the 6,000 charter schools operating in 43 states across the nation and the District of Columbia. Ninety percent of students in New Orleans, and 43% in Washington, D.C. are educated in charter schools. Enrollment in charter schools could reach five million by the end of this decade.
Objective analysis has also found charter schools to be successful, particularly with students from low income backgrounds. In 2013, researchers at Stanford University studied charter schools in 27 states and found that, on average, students in charter schools outperform traditional public school students in reading, and do about the same in math. Students below the poverty line and African-American students were both found to fare better in charter than in public schools when their standardized test scores were disaggregated.
This is the happy story part. But creeping bureaucratization and regulation are endangering the entire charter school movement.
Consider: of the eight schools that applied for charters in Washington, D.C. this year, not one application was less than 200 pages. The longest was more than 700. Creeping paperwork paralysis is one way public schools lost the ability to innovate.
In New York, South Carolina, Florida, Delaware and other states education leaders did not exempt charter schools from state-wide teacher evaluation systems promised to the Department of Education as part of their Race to the Top applications. Even though charter schools might be staffed differently or value different criteria, they still have to use the same measurements to evaluate their teachers.
In New Orleans, the city with the largest charter school market share, charter schools have been pressured to adopt a standardized discipline system, and a standardized enrollment procedure. That could be a big problem for "no excuses" schools with strict discipline and other innovative schools if they aren't able to select classes with the best opportunity to benefit from their unique approaches. In Washington D.C. advocates for "controlled choice" have put forward plans to engineer the racial and economic makeup of schools through the use of "weighted" admissions lotteries and de facto quotas.
In each of these cases, well intentioned central planners have tried to bring about their particular idea of efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness. But regulations tend to be a one way ratchet. Once in place, it is usually impossible to do away with them. These changes risk remaking the charter school as a new version of the very system it is trying to replace. In short, if this regulatory impulse is left unchecked, it's all too possible that the high achieving charter school of today could become the failing public school of tomorrow.
There is evidence that this is already happening. Too few charter schools actually take advantage of the autonomy they possess. They have the power and freedom to rethink the use of time, talent, and money, yet researchers have found that many charter school leaders behave like public school principals, and pay teachers like district schools do: by seniority instead of merit. Authorizers and regulators often overly rely on traditional and narrow forms of measurement — standardized reading and math scores — to determine if a school is "good," and therefore merits future funding.
It is crazy to think that the same worn out processes will all of a sudden produce a new result. Public oversight for the use of public dollars is understandable and appropriate, but we must remember that if unchallenged, agents of "oversight" will inexorably bureaucratize charter schooling, morphing it into the same system for which it was envisioned to be a substitute. If we're unhappy with the way schools are performing, we should avoid trying to constrain charters the way we have hamstrung district public schools. It is time to try something different.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute where Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies and a former inner-city high school teacher.