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Keys to Success for Charter Schools Include Strong Legislators & Strong Laws

National Charter Schools Week 2018 Day 2

Each year National Charter Schools Week gives charter advocates an opportunity not only to bring further attention to chartering and the myriad benefits it offers our children but to the elements critical for success. Let’s start the week with one major one – legislators.

Having the dedicated support of legislators as charter champions and policymakers dedicated to drafting strong charter laws that allow charter schools to maximize their reach and effectiveness is a major key. And, although there are current and former legislators who continue to push for increasing opportunity equity, autonomy and expansion of existing charter schools and construction of new ones, finding these champions is becoming a growing problem in many states.

Entrenched special interest groups wield an outsized influence when it comes to drafting legislative and developing policy. This, combined with campaigns to erode public support for charters and other reforms to expand education opportunities – and demonize their advocates – have had a chilling effect on elected officials in many states who don’t want to jeopardize their seats, or make their re-election more difficult by taking on the status quo.

This often leads “reformers” to seek out a legislative path of least resistance that will placate pro-charters people without antagonizing well-organized anti-charter forces. Unfortunately, such compromises typically lead to laws that are so diminished, or restrictive, that they do more to stifle charter growth than to encourage it.

A recent example of this can be found in Kentucky where lawmakers started out quite strong in support for a strong charter law but became skittish when it was suggested that the law might be unconstitutional (it wasn’t) and then, fears over authorizers were raised; then, there was the question of a budget. The result:  a weak, watered-down charter law that severely limits charter school authorizers, doesn’t provide funding for the schools and now, more than a year later, there is no solution in sight.

Of course, Kentucky is not alone and that’s the bigger problem. Too many state legislators believe that starting incrementally and growing strong over time is a great strategy, and do not want to spend the time and effort it takes to fight the status quo and craft the right policy to start. They believe that they can improve it over time. But that only happens when the law starts with the right building blocks – authorizers, autonomy, and funding.  And once a law is adopted, legislators are loath to admit that it is less than it should be and adopt an attitude of  “Our work is done here” in order to avoid the effort, and controversy, entailed in fixing problems of their own creation. Consequently, weak laws – and all the stifling impediments to charter growth that they create – tend to stay on the books, relatively unchanged, for years.

This, or course, isn’t always the case. Florida is an example of a dedicated, determined legislature that keeps the health of charters schools and other education opportunity initiatives at the top of its agenda. The state recently adopted a sweeping education bill that allows new Schools of Hope to be created out of the 208 failing schools in the state, as well as provided for direct funding for charter schools in recent months. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has fought lawsuits, proposals to reduce funding, add red tape and more, and each time his leadership stands as a model for how legislating can protect all schools from the intrusion of the education establishment, or the Blob.

On the other hand, as Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz reports on this week’s Reality Check w/Jeanne Allen, policymakers who fall prey to charter opponents have allowed 17,000 students to be placed on waiting lists for her great schools. Had they the courage to follow Florida’s lead, they might be afforded the hope of accessing one of many new options that would open up if there were authority to provide more seats.

Or they could look to Arizona, whose new and increased student-centered funding extends across all public school students, including to charter school students – who are no less public because they attend a different kind of public school. Committed legislators make sure to include charter schools whenever there are important equities to be had.

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It’s no secret what makes a strong law. CER has been researching, analyzing and reporting on it for 25 years!

It can be done. Legislators will listen, and will respond, especially if the chorus of voices is large enough and loud enough. It’s easy to learn how to sing when your choir includes a litany of great activists and policymakers who’ve done the hard work of figuring it all out – like Moskowitz, Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Michael Bennet, Governor Charlie Baker, Kevin Chavous, Dr. Howard Fuller…. These and thousands more are in the choir legislators need to hear.

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