American Enterprise Institute touched off some arguing this month by releasing a report about the mountain of paperwork that charters must climb to see the light of day. Written by Michael McShane, Jenn Hatfield, and Elizabeth English, "The Paperwork Pile-up" sets out to measure and evaluate the paperwork involved in the charter authorization process by way of explaining what they think the process should look like. This has touched off some healthy debate in the charter community, most notably a dissent from the National Association of Charter Authorizers (a group I didn't even know existed).
Why do charter fans want to landscape the paper mountain?
There is a great deal of tension in the Land O' Charters these days, and that's to be expected. Charter lobbyists and advocates have pushed hard to make charter authorization easier than pie (which would be, I don't know, as easy as a pop tart?), but that has opened the door to such fiascos as Ted Morris, Jr., the 22-year-old Rochester NY man who scored a charter even though he'd never actually graduated from college and had an application filled with spirited inaccuracies. The charter authorizers of NY ended up looking especially dopey because Morris's lies were uncovered by one reporter and a handful of bloggers in less than twenty four hours, using a technique I like to call "looking."
This sort of thing makes everybody in the charter sector look bad, and charter misbehavior is pretty easy to come across (seriously-- just google "charter school misbehavior"), so there's an increasing interest in making the Charter Entrepreneur Club a little more exclusive. At the same time, markets are starting to fill up, and charters now have to battle each other instead of simply suckling on the blood of the public school system. So the charter sector is moving from a position of "give charter authorizations to anyone and everyone who wants one" to a more measured approach. Hence, this report from AEI (who, like most free market fans, like a market that's not so free that any riff-raff can get in).
How does the report look to someone who, like me, thinks charters have lost their way more completely than a overfilled clown car with a busted GPS? "I'll wait until someone asks before I offer my opinion," said no blogger ever. So here we go.
Charter Authorizing Do's
The authors offer a quick list of the things charter authorizers should absolutely do when deciding who gets to be a charterista or not.
First, they should state clear performance measures for the charter school and hold the charter to those goals. And see, we're in trouble already, because none of the things that people most care about in a school are clearly measurable. You can't measure critical thinking skills (seriously, you just can't) and you can't measure emotional growth and well-being, so you are reduced either to ridiculous proxy standards (85% of student body will respond to question "How you doin'?" with "I am happy") or settling for unimportant meaningless things that you can measure while convincing yourself that they actually mean something (hello, PARCC).
Second, they should screen out schools "that have no business educating children." That's evocative, but open to interpretation (I, for instance, would put Success Academy and any "no excuses" school in that category). The authors suggest giving curriculum, the governing board, and the staffing plan the once over. Hold this thought for a few paragraphs.
Third, the authorizers have an obligation to look after the taxpayers' money. "As the conduit of public funds, authorizers must ensure that taxpayer dollars earmarked for charter schools will be used to educate students." The authors sneak in a shot about how government is rife with waste and fraud, but this whole point is here just so they can move on to--
Fourth. AEI, as one of the leading sources of Reasonable Reformsterism, likes this construction very much: "It's perfectly right and reasonable for people to like pancakes. Now let me explain why they should be made to eat waffles." The third point was the pancakes, but the fourth "do" is "asking only for the information that is absolutely necessary to decide whether to grant or with-hold a charter." They are correct that charter applications could run into miles of ridiculous detail. But it is also true, for example, that a charter should openly and transparently account for every single taxpayer dollar it takes in and spends. Every last one. If that leads to an examination of pretty much everything, then so be it. If charters want to be public schools, they must operate with fully transparent complete accounting. If they don't want to do that, they need to stop pretending they are public schools.
Charter Authorizing Don't's
The authors now offer a list of things that charter authorizers should not do.
First, don't act like venture capitalists. This point seems to boil down to, "Don't act like they're spending your money so you're entitled to full accountability." This is kind of hilarious from the folks who have been huge fans of the Schools Run Like Businesses school of reform. It is also hilarious to see conservatives argue, "It's just taxpayer dollars. It's not like it's your own personal money." which I'm pretty sure is on the list of Top Ten Things We Hate About Those Tax and Spend Liberals. Venture capitalists do market research and study up carefully on their prospective business; charter school authorizers should want to foster all sorts of attempts at schooling. If writing this point did not create powerful cognitive dissonance for the AEI folks, they must be taking powerful meds.
Second, charter school authorizers are not management consultants. The writers actually type "they should also avoid taking on the role of a Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Company, or McKinsey & Company." Because taking on the role of those firms would cut into those firms' business. Besides, management consultants are for businesses that are "old and ossified" but charters are young and fresh, like baby bunnies romping through fields or new-grown daisies. It's a silly claim given how instrumental all three of those groups have been in ploughing the ground, setting up, and nurturing new charter schools, but hey-- props for the use of "ossified."
Third, authorizers aren't pedagogical experts, so they should back off about that stuff (somehow balancing the off-backing with the need, up in the "do's," to make sure the charter folks have any business teaching children). They don't need to know the why's and wherefore's.
Fourth, authorizers should not use charter granting as an opportunity to embed their favorite issue into the charter's program. Fair enough.
There's also a handy chart that shows a list of some specific items that either qualify as Don't or Really, Really Don't. Those items that a charter shouldn't have to do in order to earn authorization include:
* Explain the advertising plan
* Describe any innovations to be used in the school
* Offer a rationale for choosing the specific location/community.
* Commit to meeting all students’ needs
* Explain how the choice of instructional methods will serve students.
* Justify the choice of financial strategies/goals.
I emphasized the word "shouldn't" above because one could easily mistake this for a list of things that a charter should absolutely have to do. Particularly that second one-- if you aren't proposing to do anything special, different, or innovative, why should you be allowed to operate a charter at all?
But there's an assumption that runs throughout this paper-- people have a right to start up a charter if they want to, and the authorizers should meddle no more than absolutely necessary. Authorizers are the bouncers at an exclusive club; they are necessary to keep the rabble out, but they should never interfere with the members enjoying themselves inside.
The chart I mentioned above divided charter application activities into four quadrants. One was green (okay), two were yellow (not cool, dude) and the last was red (complete waste of time). They dug through a giant stack of charter applications and sorted each task by quadrant. The results-- 42.9% green, 33.9% yellow, and 23.2% red-- aren't very compelling, given their classification of different tasks is highly debateable. But, you know, having that point-something in the data makes it look very precise and sciency.
They learned five things.
1) Many authorizers have been able to simplify the paperwork and still keep "quality control."
2) Authorizers tend to mistake length for rigor.
3) There is a lack of clarity about what charter authorizers are actually supposed to do.
4) Authorizers don't always love innovation as much as they say they do.
5) There's more variation within authorizers than between them.
The irony factor here is kind of huge. 1 and 2 seem like excellent advice for Big Standardized Test manufacturers. 3 is supported by this quote: “We love to see innovation, but at the end of the day, it has to make educational and business sense.” In other words, when you set up schools to be run like businesses-- they are. 3 is also ironic because so many charters offer only one innovation-- NOT taking all students.
More Irony Ahead
The report also includes recommendations. Most are in service of the charters-- authorizers should be re-regulated, rebranded, and rededicated as "guardians of autonomy." They should not be so worried about protecting the interests of the taxpayers and spend more time protecting the autonomy of the charters.
That's not ironic. It's just business as usual.
But the last recommendation? An orgy of irony! The report's point is that people should get "smart regulation" out of their vocabulary, because they keep saying, "Well, cool. We'll get rid of the dumb regulations you just pointed out and replace them with smart ones!"
First, “smart” and “dumb” are in the eye of the beholder. There is an unfortunate tendency for those not actually given the task of creating something to underestimate how difficult and time-consuming it can be.
Does that argument sound familiar? Substitute "teaching" or "schools" or "education." Substitute "good and bad" for "smart and dumb."
Second, no raindrop thinks it is responsible for the flood. Individually, each regulation could be sensible and meaningful, but when combined with hundreds of other requirements, the sum becomes incoherent and onerous.
Well, there's a fine explanation of how you can hit schools with a bunch of standards and some new teacher evaluations and budgetary pressures and the onslaught of resource-sucking charters and even if they seem like a good idea to you at the time, they add up to a perfect storm of disaster. Who knew that I would find a great pair of sentences about the huge mess that is modern education reform buried in a paper by leading reformsters?
Of course, there is one more irony here. Because when it comes to onerous and overly-complex application processes being used to make it harder to jump through the necessary hoops, the charters are masters. It is one of the great creaming techniques-- set up a process and paperwork so demanding that only the most committed and capable families will be able to navigate it all. It has worked so well for the charters, and yet apparently they do not enjoy being on the receiving end of it. See? Irony.