Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Political Challenge of Charter School Regulation

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Political Challenge of Charter School Regulation

Article excerpt

Despite the premise that charter schools are to be given flexibility in return for being held accountable for their results, few charter schools have actually been closed because of poor academic performance. Mr. Hess sees the problem as a political one: the differing stakes between charter school families and members of the broader community.

IN THE ERA of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, charter schooling holds out the promise of meaningful accountability without the heavy hand of assessment systems based on standardized testing. As an alternative to state-designed systems that apply to all schools, school charters can provide more nuanced accountability models that address particular issues raised by a school's mission, the nature of its student population, and so on.

In fact, a great irony of education reform is that many critics of standardized accountability have also often opposed choice-based reform. The reality is that choice-based reform offers a way to address the public's demands for accountability without leading to the standardization that has characterized test-based statewide systems.

Recognizing the promise of the charter school model, many proponents have sought to refine its accountability mechanisms and authorization processes. These are good and useful steps. However, given that charter schools are publicly funded and ultimately accountable to public entities, the largest hurdle to effective accountability may be the political challenge -- one that has too rarely been given its due consideration. Consequently, the current system for shuttering ineffective charter schools is compelling in theory but uneven in practice, and most proposed remedies do not address the root of the problem.1

Charter schooling faces challenges to effective accountability on both the "front end" -- the authorization of schools -- and the "back end" - - the closure of ineffective schools. In this discussion, I focus entirely on "back end" accountability, which poses the toughest political problems (for reasons that will shortly become obvious).

The essential "deal" implicit in charter schooling is that, in return for being freed from many of the rules and regulations endured by traditional district schools, charters are to be held accountable for their results.2 Those schools failing to meet the performance provisions specified in their charters or failing to uphold applicable state and local laws can be closed by their authorizing body.3 As the Center for Education Reform has posited, "[Charter] closures provide real contractual accountability, a feature that too often is missing at many traditional public schools."4

Two Visions of Charter School Accountability

In fact, the most recent figures show that charter school accountability is primarily about shuttering schools with low enrollment, facility problems, financial improprieties, or mismanagement rather than about monitoring or ensuring adequate academic performance. As of 2002, 194 (6.95%) of the 2,790 schools that had ever received charters and opened their doors had been closed, but just 0.005% had been closed for reasons related to academic performance.5 While some schools that deserve to close are indeed being shut down, this record does not fulfill the promise of charter school accountability. Accountability must be more stringent if it is to provide a viable long-term alternative to state assessment systems.

Why have the accountability provisions in existing charters not led to more aggressive enforcement? What would it take to fulfill the promise of charter school accountability? Clearly part of the answer is technical -- improving and expanding the tools and capacity/expertise of oversight bodies and addressing the lack of solid data. These concerns are valid and important; however, a greater challenge for charter schooling is that it faces two competing and contrasting visions of accountability: the "market model" and the "regulatory model. …

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