Politics & Policy

Red Tape Comes to Charter Schooling

(Everett Collection/Dreamstime)
It’s easier to open a business in Cambodia or Venezuela than a charter school in New York.

Charter schools may be the nearest thing to a “safe” 21st-century school reform. Other contenders — such as school vouchers, teacher evaluation, school accountability, or the Common Core — have proven more contentious. Thus, it’s no great surprise that just about every would-be school reformer has climbed on the charter-school bandwagon . . . albeit, in their own fashion.

Popularity can be a great blessing. It has helped usher in a wave of extraordinary charter-school growth, with more than 6,000 charters across the U.S. enrolling more than 2 million students. More than a million more students are on waiting lists. Popularity does have its downside, however. The peril of popularity is that when everyone likes charter schools, supporters will include well-meaning technocrats who think they can impose just the right kind of regulation and bureaucracy to make charter schooling work even better (despite the evidence of decades of mandated mediocrity).

It’s important to understand that charter schools are “authorized” and then monitored by a state-approved authorizer. Depending on the state, authorizers can be local school boards, the state board of education, special state boards, universities, or any other entity approved by the legislature.

The American Enterprise Institute recently issued a new study on the state of charter-school authorizing. It found that, across the country, well-meaning authorizers and legislators have larded up charter applications with onerous, pointless requirements that can make it inordinately difficult to launch new schools. Analyzing each element of the applications used by 40 major authorizers makes clear that nearly a quarter of the requirements were clearly excessive, and that more than half could be usefully trimmed.

Authorizers could shorten the average application by at least one-third without sacrificing their ability to ensure quality — saving applicants more than 700 hours of work and months of time. In fact, if one peruses the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” rankings, it’s easier to open a new enterprise in Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, or Venezuela than it is a charter school in New York.

If all of this red tape were about ensuring that charter schools are academically successful, that would be one thing. But it’s not. Rather, applications require the regulatory authorizers to second-guess everything from marketing strategies to peer-mentoring plans. Utah’s charter board, for example, has a detailed rubric for scoring a school’s plan for its library. Colorado’s board wants schools to detail what they will do if a child forgets his or her lunch. Nevada requires a 50-page narrative to be appended to its application.

The risk is that authorizing mushrooms beyond a lean quality-control function, with authorizers gradually bringing to charter schooling the same bureaucratic dysfunction that has bedeviled traditional district schools. Charter schooling would be better served if authorizers played a more limited and disciplined role. They should:

‐Establish clear performance benchmarks and hold schools accountable for meeting them.

‐Review applicants’ governance, organizational, financial, and academic proposals to judge whether they are capable of meeting the agreed-upon goals.

‐Ensure that schools comply with all applicable laws and conform to norms of financial management.

‐Strive to be parsimonious in their applications by asking only for necessary information.

These ideas are not new. In fact, they hew to the vision of charter schooling first sketched out more than a quarter-century ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some charter-school proponents have complained that such a vision of authorizing role is insufficiently ambitious. These critics say it is important for authorizers to demand demographic and market analyses, thinking it vital that schools “prove” there is a market for their services before being allowed to open in a community.

There’s a natural, reasonable desire to minimize the chance that a school won’t find a clientele. The trick is that a host of enterprises are always scrambling, with little success, to predict such things. Many major corporations have expensive market-research departments (or contract with specialized providers) and yet, in recent decades, we still had to suffer though Crystal Pepsi, Pepsi Blue, Sprite Remix, Dr Pepper Red Fusion, Citra, Vault, 7-Up Gold, and Coca-Cola Blak. And that’s just a partial list of failures in sugary soft drinks, a fairly simple venture that’s been around since the 1880s.

Charter schooling has been around since only the early 1990s, and charter boards don’t have anywhere near the resources that huge market-research firms have. Believing that enough second-guessing will render things safe and predictable shows a remarkable faith in the healing properties of bureaucracy.

No raindrop thinks that it is responsible for the flood. The sclerotic state of schools today is the result of generations of well-meaning people imposing just a couple more regulations and requirements on schools. Charter schools were supposed to be a break from that.

All of this is to say that charter authorizers have a terrifically important and defined role, and they should focus on doing that well. They should make sure that a new school’s academic instructional model, staff, operational plan, and governance are sound. They can and should do all that, aggressively. But omniscience is in short supply. It’s another thing, entirely, to ask authorizers to lend an unsteady, inexpert hand to micromanaging charter schools. We’ve already had a lot of experience with that model. We call it “the great American school district,” and the record hasn’t impressed.

Frederick M. Hess — Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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