Reflections on State 2015 Charter Law Changes

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in their 2016 ranking of state charter school laws, reports that 2015 “was largely a positive year for charter public school legislation across the country.”  For the most part I agree.

Oklahoma, for instance, expanded charters statewide. In my travels, I’ve been surprised at the number of states that either restrict charters to certain areas of the state (like eight urban areas in Ohio) or allow authorizers other than local school districts only in certain parts of the state. I’ve not figured out the rationale for this. Charters were meant to provide opportunity for all parents and students in their own neighborhoods, whether urban, suburban, or rural, as successfully demonstrated throughout America.  Why should some students have more opportunities than others? How do we choose which students have choices and which do not? The kids aren’t the ones choosing where they live. Charters were meant to be for all students, statewide.

While this expansion is a positive policy change, I take issue with another change in the new Oklahoma law. There is now automatic closure requirements for charter schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent of all public schools in the state, with exceptions for certain circumstances. My question is this: did the legislature enact the same automatic closure requirements for the bottom 5% of all public schools, including district schools? If not, why not? Why should any child attend a school that is performing at that low a level? If all low-performing public schools were required to be closed, I could possibly support this. But to single out only charter schools may “chill” innovation. New schools may need more time for innovative strategies to produce results, for example. Some great things may be happening in the school that don’t show up in traditional measures of success like test scores.

Someone once told me, “If you’ve seen one charter school, you’ve seen one charter school.” Automatic closure will not take into account the unique characteristics and success factors of each school. Closure should be a function of well-trained authorizers working with the school on a customized performance or improvement plan. If school leaders don’t perform to the plan, then, by all means, close the school.

One last interesting policy note: Virginia passed a resolution that amends the state constitution to allow the state board of education to authorize charter public schools. The resolution must be passed again by the legislature this session and approved by voters during the November 2016 election before it becomes law. Really? Amending the constitution to add an authorizer? I know the politics there have been tough—but amending the constitution is not the answer.