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As the Legislature considers 10 bills about charter schools, be aware of the challenges of growth

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New Hampshire now has 22 brick and mortar charter schools, 2 more approved to begin operations in 2016, and one statewide online charter, VLACS.  They are all locally grown and managed.  Their role is to supplement the district schools, filling specialty niches to expand options available to New Hampshire students.

But many other states have taken a quite different approach.  They consider charters competition and replacements for district schools.  It’s a world of national for-profit and non-profit charter management organizations, a world we have not encountered here in New Hampshire.

That big time effort has been underway long enough now to see the results.  First, while there are higher and lower performing schools among charters, as there are among district and private schools, it has been clearly established that charters as a group perform about the same as other types of schools.  It’s really leadership that makes the difference rather than structure.

Secondly, managing a second large-scale public education system in addition to the traditional district system is proving difficult.   States like Massachusetts, Ohio and Arizona have gone far down that road.  As we work to expand charters in New Hampshire, we should heed their lessons.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts just released its 2009-2013 “Official Audit Report” assessing how well its Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”) has been doing managing the state’s charter schools.  They find, for instance, that although fair and open enrollment, which requires proper waitlist management, is critical to achieving the public mission of charter schools, the “charter school waitlist information maintained by DESE is not accurate.”

The report goes on to say things like, “…charter schools are required to document that they have provided innovative programs, best practices, and models for replication in public schools.  However, …DESE has not adequately documented that it has facilitated these practices.”   And “DESE does not ensure the reliability of data submitted to it by schools and districts.”

Most importantly, perhaps, the audit says, “The lack of comparability between charter schools and sending districts presents significant barriers to any attempt to determine whether the higher Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System performance at certain charter schools is attributable to demographic differences or whether innovative practices have produced positive outcomes.”

The most obvious point to make about all this is that New Hampshire no capacity – staff or funding – for the kind of charter oversight expected in Massachusetts or any other state with many charters.  We have no indication that we have a waitlist problem in New Hampshire, but we have no methodical way to monitor waitlists or any of the other charter performance issues in the Massachusetts audit report.

Ohio

Massachusetts charters, mainly the middle schools, perform relatively well, but Ohio and Arizona demonstrate the risks of uncontrolled charter boosterism.  In Ohio, CREDO found that charter students get an average of 14 fewer days of learning in reading and 43 fewer days in math compared with district schools with similar demographics.

And, in general, charter schools in Ohio are such a mess that the head of the free-market Hoover Institute’s CREDO said in a speech about the report,

“I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And it’s [education] the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work.”

Charters have become an embarrassment to the state.  Columbus Post Dispatch: “Ohio charters not only perform worse than traditional public schools, but the gap is growing larger.”  The Cleveland Plain Dealer chimes in, “Charter school reform needs to rank high on Ohio Senate’s to-do-list.”  Conservative school choice advocates Fordham Institute has produced a 60 page report of reform recommendations like passing legislation preventing self-dealing by groups setting up charter schools.

With over 390 charter schools enrolling 124,000 students, 7% of the state’s K-12 students, reform will not come easily.  Here is the reporting available on Ohio charter schools.   How many of these figures could we report on New Hampshire charters?

Arizona

Arizona has been among the most ambitious charter states.  Since 1995, the number of charter schools in Arizona has grown to over 500 and enrollment is over 113,000.  That’s 10% of all students in the state.  CREDO reported in 2009 that its “in-depth examination of the results for charter schools in Arizona found that reading and math gains were significantly lower in charter school students compared to their traditional public school peers.”  The New YorkTimes goes into further detail:

“In Arizona, one of the first states to authorize charter schools, in 1995, the standardized test scores of charter school students are lower than for those in public schools. Those lower scores represented the equivalent of 22 fewer days of learning in reading and 29 fewer days in math when compared with the scores logged by the district schools those students would have otherwise attended, according to a widely cited study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. (On average, the performance deficit between charter and other public school students is similar across the country.)

“We have this promise of shaping our charter schools based on the needs of our communities, but we haven’t made good on it,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona school superintendent and state legislator, who helped write the state’s charter school law. “We didn’t force the issue of quality in the early days.”

This is a well established pattern.  The Arizona Republic reported back in 2012,

When Armando Ruiz opened his charter schools in 1995, his mission was to create the Brophy College Preparatory of south Phoenix, where poor minority students could get the same superior education he received at the central Phoenix private school.

Fifteen years and thousands of students later, Ruiz’s charter company became one of 27 the state put on probation. Like the others, Ruiz was given a year to turn around his schools’ overall lagging academic performance….

“As an organization, we had become average and we settled on average,” Ruiz said. “That’s what happened to the charter movement overall. It just lost its edge.”

…This effort marks a stark difference from the years when politicians and school-choice advocates pushed rapid growth of charter schools above all else, viewing them as game-changing innovations.

School-choice supporters believed parents and students would reject badly run charter schools and allow only the best to remain open. That reliance on the marketplace for regulation is fading, even among the strongest advocates.

“It’s seismic, the change,” said Eileen Sigmund, Arizona Charter Schools Association president. “First, Arizona charter schools were about choice. Now, they’re about good choice.”

…”They haven’t moved the needle,” said Martin Orland, WestEd research and policy director based in Washington, D.C., who helps monitor charter schools around the country for federal compliance. “Those who honestly believe in charter schools and their potential have faced up to that.”

…In 1994, the Arizona Legislature passed a law that allowed for-profit or non-profit companies to open a public school and receive state money.

But the system became unwieldy. The small staff of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools says it has sometimes struggled to keep up with oversight.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire has one valiant administrative assistant doing her best to keep track of charter schools in New Hampshire.  That’s working ok right now because we’ve got good schools and we know everyone personally.  But it’s a rough and tumble charter world out there in the states with significant numbers of schools.

In Michigan, where the Detroit Free Press reports that, facilitated by lax charter laws, insiders bought land and sold it to their own school for a $50,000 profit.  In Connecticut (and Pelto here, and Jan 2, 2015 report on FUSE), Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii, California, Illinois, New York, Louisiana, Wisconsin and other states you get similar stories.

New Hampshire has no statute prohibiting non-profits or regulating charter management organizations.  We haven’t needed statutes like that during what was called our 20 school “pilot” phase.  But now we have no cap on the number of charter schools, as well as an explicit legislative mandate to authorize charters whether or not there is funding appropriated for them.

As the Legislature considers the 10 charter bills filed for this session, the experience of these other states will be important to keep in mind.  We wouldn’t want this problem or OH problem a few years from now.


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