Selected readings on US charter schools
It was one of the more controversial provisions of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2012 education reform package: allowing local nonprofits, public agencies and colleges to grant charters to schools. But when the deadline passed last week for interested entities to submit a letter of intent, not a single group wanted in.
That was a surprise to Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association. “I would’ve expected at least one or two applications,” he said. The association is a plaintiff in a school vouchers lawsuit against the department.
Before the state law was passed last year, the power to authorize charters had been restricted to local school districts and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The spokesman for the state Department of Education downplayed the lack of applicants. “It was the first year and we did have lots of interest,” said Barry Landry. “Groups are still considering [it].”
The provision is part of a number of changes that aim to expand the number of charters in Louisiana. Even with the state’s high visibility for recent education reforms, fewer than 10 percent of public schools are charters, according to Department of Education data released in January.
Like local and state school boards, a local charter authority would receive, evaluate and grant applications for independent groups to open schools, and then evaluate the performance of those schools. Students could come from anywhere in the state.
Charter advocates and opponents had a number of explanations for why no one took advantage of the opportunity, including limited outreach, tough rules and general satisfaction with the current chartering system.
For one, the eligibility standards are stringent. Applicants must have an educational mission, at least $500,000 in net assets, and have been incorporated for at least 3 years — meaning no one can set up a group just to become a charter authorizer.
No administrator can have been convicted of a felony. Authorizers also must have open meetings and make records available to the public.
The evaluation rules are stringent as well. After a local charter authority’s first school has been open for 3 years, the state reviews the performance of all the group’s schools. If they have an average academic performance grade of D or F, the organization loses its authorizing power and the schools are turned over to the state. An average of C means the group holds on to its schools but cannot authorize any new ones until scores improve.
That’s a high bar, said John Ayers, executive director of Tulane University’s Cowen Institute. “Charter schools often seek to educate hard-to-serve youngsters, who are often behind state averages on scholastic aptitude metrics. Getting all your schools to C in 3 years is a big challenge.”
The state also could intervene and rescind a charter at any time if it found a school neglected, abused or mistreated students.
Ayers and various Louisiana charter advocates approve of those rules. “You can’t just give a free hand to charter authorizers,” said Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. “I think Louisiana’s law was cognizant of that.”
State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who worked on the bill, said local community leaders had expressed interest in starting schools to meet needs in a region. “Until now, they have had to work through the current system to do so,” he said.
But when the law was written last year there was no groundswell of nonprofits clamoring to become chartering authorities, said Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools: “It was not based on demand.”
Rather, it was a top-down decision aligned with national policy trends. Influential organizations including the Center for Education Reform, StudentsFirst and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools emphasize the importance of having multiple pathways to create charters. Currently, 19 states plus the District of Columbia allow for “independent and multiple authorizers,” said Kara Kerwin of the Center for Education Reform.
The national experience with local charter authorities has been mixed and may have dissuaded some potential applicants. In New York, the state university network charters schools and has been generally well regarded. But overall it hasn’t gone well, said Ayers. In Indiana, Ball State University is reviewing nearly half of the 42 schools it has chartered and already pulled seven charters, according to reports.
“The extremely problematic Ohio charter movement is the poster child for why this is generally not a good idea, and my understanding is that people pointed that problem out to Gov. Jindal’s people as they pushed for the approach last winter,” Ayers said.
Schools also might not want to apply to local charter authorities for their charters. “It’s such a big unknown,” said Jonathan Bertsch, director of advocacy for KIPP New Orleans. Under the Recovery School District, KIPP has access to school buildings and clear evaluation standards. “Right now we’re in a pretty stable situation and that’s worked for us,” he said, though “it’s definitely an interesting idea.”
The new provision also hasn’t had much visibility. BESE passed the policy in October 2012 with little fanfare. Landry said the Department of Education had preliminary conversations with some foundations and nonprofits but no formal outreach or training.
It hasn’t been a focus for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools either. “It’s a great opportunity,” said Roemer Shirley. “There needs to be some effort behind it. There’s a lot of other moving parts right now.”
In most parts of the state, she said, she still needs to explain that charter schools are public.
Source: The Times-Picayune – by Danielle Dreilinger