Obama must do better on charters

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It looks like voters across the country, and in a number of races possibly even in Massachusetts, may be voting out congressional leaders who breathed life into many of President Obama’s signature laws. In education, many of his priorities will likely be affected, but polling from Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance suggests that his support for charter schools is not at all affected by his plummeting approval ratings.

As noted in a study we just released,

Opinion polls conducted between 2008 and 2010 by Education Next and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance show that support for charter schools among the general public is reasonably strong and on the rise. Of a representative sample of nearly 2,800 respondents polled in 2010, 44 percent cited support for charter schools, which is more than double the 19 percent of people polled who do not support charter schools. Not surprisingly, within minority communities support for charters is even greater and on the rise. “Among African-Americans, the portion who support charters grew from 42 percent to 49 percent between 2008 and 2009 and leapt to 64 percent in 2010, with only 14 percent expressing opposition. Among Hispanics, levels of support grew from 37 to 47 percent across the three annual surveys.”

I suppose the strong surge in support for charters among African-Americans may be due to enhanced trust, because President Obama has been such a strong spokesman on the issue. The President’s support coincides with the emergence of a number of high-profile charter operators like Geoffrey Canada, mayors and political leaders in the African-American community, such as Cory Booker (Newark) and Kevin Johnson (Sacramento), who are local spokespeople with a national profile. And then there is the role of Democrats for Education Reform, which has been an unstoppable, pro-charter force barnstorming key parts of the country and winning lots of support for change among Democrats.

The fact is the surge in African-American support is riding atop a tidal wave of change among new political leaders in the Democratic party. Finally.

That’s great news on support, but anybody who watches the education space knows well that nationwide charter school performance is a lot spottier than the successes of so-called No Excuses schools (KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, etc.) suggest. I know US ED Secretary Arne Duncan talks about wanting good charters, but what has he done to accomplish that? A blanket expansion of charters may shake things up (devoutly to be wished for!), but that’s not a sustainable, forward-looking policy statement. The administration would have done well to look at places like Massachusetts where state policy has ensured that the students in the great majority of our charters are consistently outperforming similar and “sending” schools.

The basic reason why our charters have done so well is that our authorization process was, until recently, non-political and required that charter applicants develop a strong business plan. The charter business plan had to include identification of a great board for oversight purposes, a consistent and academically focused curriculum, teacher recruitment and retention plans, an achievable set of steps to secure (and finance) a facility, and goals that were clear and against which the potential school would be held accountable. The state’s Charter School Office, with oversight and a vote from the Board of Education, serves as a single—and importantly non-political and expert—authorizer.

And the Board of Education to date has held up its part of the bargain by not shying away from putting on probation or shutting down charter schools that have failed to live up to their promise. That laser-like focus on excellence is a huge reason why our charters are, on the whole, a cut above those in the rest of the country. And it is why our charter process was considered the best in the country.

In advancing charters nationwide, did the Obama administration support what works—and draw a page from Massachusetts? Uh, nope. Other states have multiple (often political) authorizers; they seldom have the level of expert advice and support from the state’s department of education. There sure is a lot more we could do as a state to promote innovation from charters and also to support charters. But as in so many other areas of education policy, the feds have not sought to learn from the experience of the states. And in this case, they simply rewarded states for charter policies that are okay, I suppose, but not going to lead to some consistent level of excellence.

It’s not just in the area of academic standards, or the new emphasis on 21st century skills, coming out of Secretary Duncan’s office. What we are getting is policies that are somewhat more informed than the policies the Secretary continued when he was the Superintendent of the City of Chicago’s public schools.

People in Massachusetts, since the time of John Adams and really even prior, have wanted more than that, and that’s why our state constitution clearly states:

Chapter V, Section II.
The Encouragement of Literature, etc.
Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people. [See Amendments, Arts. XVIII, XLVI, XCVI and CIII.]

Not many other state constitutions can say that. I find that even where I agree with the current administration on general direction, they’ve missed the point. I want more than that for Massachusetts—and you should, too.