The New Model Law: A Tool for Advancing a Strong Charter School Sector
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 | Safal Partners
The charter school movement includes a lot of very reasonable people. Case in point, last week the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released the latest version of the model charter school law. Like its predecessor, this is an important and pragmatic document. Just as the original model law has been instrumental in the growth and success of the charter school movement, this more mature version will inform the evolution and growth of the charter school space for years to come. Of course, it is not perfect and getting consensus on every detail is an unrealistic goal. But after a long, carefully considered, and inclusive process, the updated version should prove highly useful—at least if we can find reasonable politicians to use it.
It’s not surprising that the new model law would be so thoughtful. I had the pleasure of working closely with Todd Ziebarth and the rest of the National Alliance’s policy team in many states over the last few years. I saw them work diligently to solve challenges through careful collaboration with local charter school coalitions and detailed policy development. Collectively, the model law continues this spirit by promoting quality and accountability; access and appropriate services for all kids; as well as resources, support and the autonomy to innovate.
Like our sector should be, this version of the model law is neither defensive nor apologetic. It is a tool for advancing a strong sector by accelerating what is working, honestly addressing what is problematic, and creating the space for the next generation of innovation and exploration.
This honest pragmatism comes at a time when charter school opponents seem to have gone off the deep end in terms of spewing misinformation. The haters stick to a focus-group-driven narrative that exists entirely in the space between exaggerated half-truths and total falsehoods. In response, there are some who suggest that the charter school sector ought to present a unified front, and defend every charter school—even those that fail miserably at teaching students or at honoring the public trust. They would also reflexively recommend policy changes that were promoted in the late 90’s, like adding as many new authorizers as possible or ensuring that charter schools are not closed just because of low performance. The new model law is an antidote to this defensive and retrograde orientation.
In addition to improvements in governance, funding, reporting burdens, and services for students with disabilities, the new version of the law also makes strides in accountability and authorizer quality. It points out that the goal of multiple authorizers is to have at least one authorizer available in addition to the local district, while noting that having too many authorizers is counter-productive. Likewise, the new law is strong on the obligation to close failing charter schools, and it promotes strong charter school contracts, performance frameworks, and clarity about performance expectations and authorizer responsibilities.
The model law’s approach of full-time virtual schools is another example of a reasonable and proactive orientation. The widespread failure of fulltime virtual schools is well understood and far too regular to ignore. That is why so many supporters of the charter school movement have joined the call for real changes in how we approve and oversee these schools. Stalwart advocates of charter schools like the Walton Family Foundation, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, 50CAN, and the National Alliance itself have all weighed in already regarding the need for a new approach.
The National Alliance acted on these calls by incorporating several ideas about virtual charter schools into the model law. They recommend that only statewide authorizers be allowed to consider applications for these schools. They suggest performance-based compensation for virtual schools, and funding that reflects the costs of this way of operating, among other ideas. They humbly suggest that if these other policy ideas don’t improve the unacceptable performance in virtual charter schools, that states consider moving virtual schooling outside the charter structure where it may be easier to find solutions to the most severe problems.
The National Alliance can imagine a future in which non-chartered virtual schools succeed because they are allowed to focus on students who can benefit from this type of schooling. There are many such children, and broad consensus that we must protect their access to this approach. But, there are also large numbers of students being harmed by our current approach, for whom change is needed. Rather than defending virtual schools as part of some mythical and embattled charter turf, the National Alliance’s pragmatism is based on the pursuit of what is best for children as well as their concern that limiting enrollment in charter schools in general is problematic on too many levels.
These are all tricky issues where local challenges and realities will indicate what needs to be done. I am confident that over the next few years many reasonable people will look to this model and appreciate what it has to offer as they build their own solutions.
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