On Tuesday, January 29, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released its annual rankings of state charter school laws. Kansas ranked fourth from the bottom or fourth from the top, depending on whether you are a fan or foe of charter schools.
This National Alliance is an advocacy group in the business of promoting charter schools—just as tobacco companies would rate states on the number of smokers.
Unfortunately we live in an era when schools are terribly over-regulated—good intentions but bad policies. Good teachers are constrained in how they can teach. One contradiction built into the charter school concept is that we must allow exceptions from good-intentioned regulations so these special schools can function better.
I know enough frustrated teachers and ex-teachers that, given the chance, we could form a school that returned professional decision-making to each teacher and again excited students to learn. So why would I oppose charter schools?
Diane Ravitch describes a similar motivation for the origin of charter schools in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Both a Massachusetts professor Ray Budde and the American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker independently suggested how groups of teachers could run experimental schools within regular schools in order to better teach students who were not learning in the regulated school environment.
However, this 1988 proposal for teacher-led experimental schools-within-schools was hijacked by the voucher movement. Shanker withdrew his support in 1993. (The voucher movement appeals to many who wanted to use public funds to send their children to private or parochial schools. The courts continue to rule against this entanglement.)
Private enterprise folks also embraced charter schools believing that competition is always good and improves product quality. But school is a public good (similar to policing, fire fighting, and national defense) and not a product. It also assumes there is an excess of qualified teachers so that every student will end up with superior teachers, an assumption every rural superintendent recognizes is false.
But what are the "criteria" that place Kansas near the bottom for this National Alliance (or near the top for professional teachers)?
"Kansas’s law needs improvement across the board," according to Todd Ziebarth, lead author of the report.
Kansas does not allow many authorizing routes. "First, the local school board must approve it. Second, the state board of education must approve it." They want more routes to charterdom.
They also want more authorizer funding, complete alignment with their pro-charter model laws, operational autonomy, and operational and capital funding.
Kansans have been pro-education ever since Kansas was settled to become a free state. The obvious problem is that charters would eventually shift the best teachers and resources to elite voucher schools. Shanker realized at an early stage that its purpose was to undermine, not support public education for all.
The National Alliance claims: "Charter school studies that use the best data and the most sophisticated research techniques show charters outperforming comparable traditional public schools." Of course they cherry-pick their data, as do some charter opponents.
The best discussion of the many comparative studies is again from Ravitch. Representative is a Stanford University study of 2,403 charter schools in 15 states and DC that concluded 37 percent had learning gains below public schools, 46 percent were no different, and 17 percent showed significantly better growth.
In the end, the charters would tend to pull out the good teachers, students and resources and leave behind public ghetto schools.
The rural states of Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Vermont were not included in this survey because they make no provisions for charter schools. Perhaps it is time for Kansas to simply take charter schools completely off the table and join our commonsense states to the north.