A plan to charterize traditional public schools

Yesterday, in a fascinating public policy forum over at the American Enterprise Institute, Andy Smarick of Bellweather Education Partners presented his paper written for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools entitled “Charter Accountability for District-Run Schools.”  Mr. Smarick’s thesis is that with the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are now developing accountability systems for public schools.  His point is that many of these evaluation tools are already in place in localities in which charter schools operate.  He contends that these same standards be applied to all educational institutions, and be administered by the same organization that currently authorizes charters.

According to the author, his plan would make traditional schools look a lot more like charters.  They would be held to performance contracts under which the schools could be closed for poor outcomes.  The new system would certainly help parents since all schools would be graded according to the same standards.  The idea would also be attractive to regular school administrators, Mr. Smarick believes, since this would finally provide them with the autonomy that many of them have been seeking under their current bureaucratic structures.

In a twist on this concept with which I don’t agree, the Bellweather analyst sees a continuing role for state education superintendents.  He asserts that these individuals would still run the regular schools as far as establishing policies and negotiating contracts.  I believe that this suggestion in practice would be quickly eliminated since it clearly flies in the face of true independence of schools.

The event included a panel discussion of the paper that included Chris Barbic, of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation;  John King Jr., from The Education Trust and former U.S. Education Secretary; Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; and Christy Wolfe, from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  Mr. Pearson’s remarks were the most enlightening.

The PCSB executive director stated he was excited by the suggestions he was hearing at the conference.  Then he made some interesting points.

Mr. Pearson drew an immediate analogy between Mr. Smarick’s ideas and the situation regarding the public schools in Denver, Colorado that I have written much about.  In Denver, both traditional and charter schools are authorized and held accountable under one system by Denver Public Schools.  The body has in recent years closed dozens of under-performing traditional schools and replaced them with charters with positive academic results.

But he explained that if charters become closer to looking like district schools then there are commitments they would have to make.  For example, Mr. Pearson revealed that they would need to admit students at any grade and at any point in the school year, which are policies that many charters do not currently follow.  In addition, while the PCSB executive director is proud that here in the nation’s capital charters teach the same proportion of special education students as the regular schools, he indicated that this is not the always case nationally, and that would have to change under Mr. Smarick’s concept.  Finally he talked about what I would call the democratization of public schools.  He said there is a lot of pressure from political representatives who come to the regular schools to incorporate constituent suggestions such as all schools having libraries or an hour of physical education each day.  Mr. Pearson observed that while now this democratic pressure is applied mostly to DCPS, under a model where there is a single school authorizer charters may face the call for similar requirements.

I was encouraged by the discussion.  As our local charters grow to take on a greater market share of students their student bodies will naturally more closely resemble that of neighborhood schools.  When this occurs we will have theories such as Mr. Smarick’s, and practical examples such as public education in Denver, to guide us on how to proceed.

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