Former basketball star and current Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a new move. Not only is he pressuring states to raise their caps on charter schools and figure out ways to expand high-performing charters, he also wants states to close lousy charter schools—a smart action to take considering this week's study revealing the high number of mediocre charters out there.
As part of the requirements accompanying the economic stimulus money for states, Duncan is ordering states to report not just how many charters—independent public schools—they allow to operate but also how many they have closed for low performance. The focus on quality signals a major change in the federal government's posture toward state charter school laws.
Outstanding charter schools, often dubbed "no excuses" charters, have become the miracle workers of urban education. High-performing charter school networks around the country and outstanding charter schools like Roxbury Prep and MATCH in Boston or the Achievement First schools in Connecticut are debunking the notion that urban kids can't be educated well absent an unprecedented social transformation of their communities.
But here's the catch. All the schools in the elite charter school networks number only about 300 and there are 4,600 charters operating in the United States. What about the rest?
Many of those are working miracles, too. But as a study from Stanford University revealed Monday, too many aren't. That study of 2,400 charter schools found that more than 80percent did no better—or did even worse—than traditional public schools on math tests.
Unfair, you say, to insist on closing bad charters when equally bad traditional schools remain open? Perhaps, but that's what a higher standard is all about. Charter schools were not supposed to be about just replicating mediocrity.
If you assume that a charter school should at least exceed the academic performance of comparable traditional neighborhood schools, then about one fifth of those 4,600 charters need to close immediately. Applying that guideline to states such as Ohio, with loose charter school laws and by extension quality problems, means as many as half of the state's 326 charter should close their doors.
The situation in Ohio illustrates the dysfunctional politics of charter schools. Many Republicans there have never seen a school of choice they didn't like, regardless of its quality, while too many Democrats simply echo the relentless hostility of most teachers' unions and the education establishment toward charter schools.
Yet while Ohio's quality problems are more acute than those of most other states, that political logjam is illustrative of the national problem and has little to do with charter quality. It plays out in Massachusetts where, despite clear evidence that charter schools outperform other public schools, there is still intense resistance from the education establishment to expanding them.
Policymakers in New Hampshire and Connecticut are also debating proposals that could help or hamstring the growth of charter schools.
That's why Duncan's third way charter strategy could prove so pivotal to changing the politics of charter schools. By supporting the expansion of charter schooling with more federal dollars and rewarding states that are charter school leaders while at the same time forcing action on charter school quality, Duncan can take the charter concept to the next level.
Jonathan Schnur, a former Duncan aide who helped design the new policy, explains that Duncan, who closed three failing charters during his tenure as Chicago schools chief, wants to "drive real accountability" for all charters while pushing states to pave the way for more high-performing charters. Therefore, it's reasonable to ask how many charters were closed over the past three years.
President Clinton took on the teachers' unions and championed charter schools as a national reform and steered federal resources to states to help charters open. Now it's time for a second generation federal role that helps good charters expand and requires states to adopt strong charter school laws that allow more good schools to open while dealing with failing charters.
The policy in the stimulus is a good first step toward that goal but will succeed only if it's followed by new resources for charter schools and requirements that states help good ones open and replicate them while rooting out low performers. By demanding that linkage and throwing federal weight behind it, Duncan can open up more high-quality schools in neighborhoods that badly need them and encourage policymakers in states like Ohio to take steps to help charter schools expand. That's a long overdue three-point play for education reform.
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Andrew Rotherham is cofounder and publisher of Education Sector and blogs at Eduwonk.com. Richard Whitmire, immediate past president of the National Education Writers Association, blogs at whyboysfail.com.