On July 19, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), which reauthorizes the nation’s K–12 federal education statute known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Regardless of one’s views on the federal role in education, almost everyone agrees that reauthorization of this law is seven years late. Whether the Senate will now be able to move this legislation (or come up with its own version of ESEA reform) remains to be seen.
With a few tweaks, ESEA can play a crucial role in creating and growing new high-quality public charter schools to a point where they can close the achievement gap in many of our inner cities.
Within ESEA resides a small but effective program called the Charter School Program (CSP). Since 1994, the CSP has provided seed funding for the creation of public charter schools around the country. Unlike most federal programs that come with thousands of strings attached, this program steps in to jumpstart new charter schools and steps out of the way once the school is off the ground.
Thanks to this program, there are now 6,000 public charter schools serving 2.3 million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia — a 60 percent increase since 2009. And over the past three years, eleven targeted analyses and four national studies of major municipal regions found that charter-school students academically outperform their public-school counterparts. Charter schools, which are 6 percent of all public high schools, disproportionately make the lists of America’s best high schools.
Though charter schools have grown rapidly around the country, enrollment demand far exceeds the supply of openings: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, of which I am president, estimates that nearly 1 million names currently occupy our charter-school wait lists. In Washington, D.C., alone, the wait list for charters has 22,000 students, with some local schools able to boast admission rates that rival those of many Ivy League schools. The demand is not surprising: A recent study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes finds that, compared with public-school students in the District, charter-school students over the course of the school year receive 72 more days of learning in reading and 101 more days in math.
As drivers of creative learning reform, charter schools are a smart investment. But to meet current demand while maintaining their excellence and edge, they need their funding to be doubled by 2018. Funds are needed to open more schools that replicate and follow the most effective charter-school models that are producing the biggest achievement gains for all of their students.
Second, a reauthorized ESEA needs to strip away federal regulatory encroachments, such as the law’s “highly qualified teacher” requirement, which often prevents administrators from staffing their schools with the most effective educators. Charter schools are able to be innovative and effective in part because their school administrators are free of constraints from state and school districts. For example, if a charter-school administrator finds a technology that can help the school measure students’ progress toward meeting reading and math standards, they can go out and purchase it without a drawn-out procurement process that could delay implementation for several school years.
But in exchange for this freedom, charter schools must meet higher academic and accountability standards, which they negotiate with the various entities that grant their charter. These high standards allow charter-school administrators the freedom to focus on the needs of their students, leading to innovations in pedagogy and school management and to large gains in student achievement.
Every time a new one-size-fits-all rule or regulation is put in place (no matter how well-meaning), it risks undermining the terms that govern a charter school’s contract with its authorizer. Though some rules, like the requirement to test students annually, are necessary for charter schools to be able to monitor their performance against that of traditional public schools, other rules stand to grossly undermine the charter schools’ purpose. Lawmakers need to shield charter schools from these types of rules.
Of course, there are charter schools that underperform. Charters that perpetually fail to improve must be closed. The sector has closed roughly 500 schools over the past three years, but more needs to be done to ensure that only the best charter-school operators are given the privilege to serve our neediest students and schools.
Here again federal lawmakers can lend a hand by making sure that federal law doesn’t impede the closure of persistently low-achieving charter schools.
In just 20 years, charter schools have proven to be a catalyst for higher student achievement. They can continue to shape reform and drive improvements in public education. But federal lawmakers need to help these exceptional schools reach their full potential and enable even more American students to realize a brighter future.
— Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.