Charters: Good, bad, in between

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Charter schools likely will be coming to Mississippi soon, as the Legislature debates a new law that could greatly expand their access to the state.
These schools are public: They are funded by taxpayer dollars, are tuition free and have an open enrollment. What makes them unique is that they are given freedom from several state regulations. They may be given flexibility on teacher certification requirements, on hiring and firing teachers, on spending their money more freely and on setting their own schedule.
The schools are often autonomous and may not be governed by a local school board, but they are held accountable to standards that are set by the body that issues their charter, which also can be revoked.
The Legislature appears to be in favor of allowing more charter schools in Mississippi, whose current law only allows for chronically failing schools to be converted into charters.
The question will be how will the new charters look.
“It is my strong belief that the label charter school doesn’t necessarily change the character of the school,” said E.D. Hirsch, founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. “The actual character of the school is what matters. Just to be a charter school doesn’t automatically make you good or bad.”
Hirsch is among nine national education or charter school experts recently interviewed by the Daily Journal to gain more perspective on charters and the relevant issues involved with them.
The most definitive study on charter schools was performed by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes in 2009. The national study found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, and 37 percent showed gains that were worse than traditional public schools. Forty- six percent of charter schools demonstrated no significant difference.
The report did find that charter schools have a significant positive impact for low-income students and for English language-learners.
“That suggests that there are without question exemplary charter schools; there are also some charter schools that really struggle and don’t offer kids even the same education as traditional schools,” said Katy Bulkley, associate professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “What policy-makers should think about is what are they going to do to design that system so they increase the likelihood of those stellar schools and decrease likelihood of ones that don’t move kids well.”
The challenge, said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is discerning that isn’t easy.
“All of this would be a lot simpler if it was either clear that charters were outperforming traditional schools, or if it was clear charters in some states were clearly superior to charters in other states,” Henig said.
Michael Ward, North Carolina’s former state superintendent who currently serves on the graduate faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi, said charter schools can provide models of innovation for traditional public schools, but three questions should be considered before granting charters. Those questions are does the new charter have a sound business plan, is it a model of innovation others can emulate and is it inclusive or exclusive?
CURRENT DEBATE
The Mississippi Senate has already passed a bill that would create an independent charter board to authorize and oversee these special public schools, which would be allowed in all parts of the state. School boards would have the right to veto charter school applications in school districts rated as High Performing or Star, the two highest categories in Mississippi’s rankings for its schools.
Mississippi’s House considered but did not pass its own charter school bill. That chamber will soon consider the Senate’s bill.
One issue that will be debated will be whether charter school teachers need to follow state certification requirements.
Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, said not requiring charter schools to hire certified teachers allows those schools to hire highly educated individuals who may not want to go through the extended process of taking education courses to become certified.
In many cases, she said, people with master’s degrees and PhDs who want to make a mid-career switch into K-12 education won’t want to go through that process.
Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, agreed that certification doesn’t necessarily determine whether a teacher is good or bad. He and Stotsky both said that it may be more productive to require teachers to pass a subject-area test to establish their expertise in the subject in which they are teaching.
Bulkley, however, said certification is not perfect but it does give an “indication that someone has substantial preparation to teach children.”
“I have been in the education field for about 20 years, and I have two small children, and I don’t always know whether their teachers are doing a good job,” she said.
AUTHORIZATION
Another important issue to be decided is how new charter schools will be authorized. The Senate’s bill currently calls for an independent state board that would review charter school applications, determine who is granted charters and oversee those schools. Some other states also give that task to local school boards, state education departments, universities or non-profit organizations.
Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said he has found having a single independent authorizing entity generally works best.
“We like the idea of a statewide entity that focuses just on charter schools,” Richmond said. “One reason that it tends to work well is that it allows the party that is overseeing the charter schools to really get good at it and develop some expertise.”
That authorizer should set high standards, Richmond said.
“The purpose isn’t to flood the state with a lot of schools and hope some of them are good,” he said. “… If you are careful and have high standards, you get better schools.”
It must also have the ability to close schools that are not meeting those standards, a process that can be made politically more difficult if people are happy in that school, Henig said.
“One thing we have learned is that parents are not apt to exercise exits on a large scale just because a school isn’t doing a good job,” Henig said. “There are a lot of mediocre charter schools that parents are loyal to and stay loyal to.
“There has to be some process other than parents picking up and leaving. In principle, that is what charter bodies do as well.”
SUCCESSFUL DISTRICTS
One issue that has been hotly debated is whether charters can be allowed in school districts ranked Successful – the third highest tier in the state rankings – without the permission of the local school board.
Bob Maranto, 21st century chair in leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, said traditional public schools do an excellent job educating about 60 or 65 percent of the population, but there are three groups of students for whom the model isn’t as effective: exceptionally bright students, students who are bullied and low-performing students. Charter schools may be better options for these students he said, even if they live in successful or high-performing districts.
Others note that individual schools in districts ranked Successful are lower-performing.
Bulkley said that the issue should be considered carefully.
“I think that is a really important debate, and a lot of it has to do with why are you passing charter school legislation in the first place,” she said. “If it is because there are districts where children are clearly and consistently being poorly served, then the argument for charters in high-performing districts is hard to make.
“If the law is being approved in part because you want more innovation in the system and you think that there are children not being served even as the system as a whole works well, then part of the charter school’s application process needs to make a case for how this particular school will serve the needs of students who are not being served well.”
VIRTUAL CHARTERS
Another contentious debate is whether or not Mississippi will allow virtual charters. The Senate’s original bill allowed them, but that provision was removed before the bill was passed. It remains to be seen whether the House, which has been lobbied by several virtual charter companies, will add that language back into the final bill.
Maranto serves on the board of a virtual charter school in Pennsylvania and said virtual charters work really well for motivated students who work part-time or are unable to attend school because of illness. He said there is software that can track keystrokes to better hold students accountable for attendance, and anecdotal evidence indicates virtual charters may work better for students with attention-deficit disorder.
He said special care must be paid to ensure students are being held accountable on state tests and are carefully monitored on those tests.
Ward, however, said that virtual charters leave much room for abuse.
“I think there are incredible potentials in virtual technologies for school learning,” he said. “That said, it is a really squishy thing for charters to manage.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com