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Study Says Charters Are 'Painting With Mittens'

The quid pro quo with charter schools has always been pretty clear: They get freedom from a lot of the rules and regulations that govern regular schools and, in return, they produce results in terms of student achievement—or else.

In practice, though, the typical charter school isn't all that autonomous, says a new report. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Public Agenda examined charter school laws in the 26 states that house the largest percentage of charter schools, inspected charter school contracts for 100 schools associated with some of the nation's biggest authorizers, and interviewed a wide range of people associated with those schools and authorizers. When it comes to autonomy, the report concludes, the typical charter school gets no better than a C-plus.

It turns out, according to the report, that states vary widely in terms of the restrictiveness of their charter school statutes. Arizona, California, the District of Columbia, and Texas, for example, all got A's from the report's authors for the amount of autonomy they afford their charters. But charter laws in Maryland, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Wisconsin tend to be more restrictive, the study says.

Authorizers, whether they're school districts, universities, or other entities, also impose some rules on the new-breed schools, such as requiring them to adopt district discipline policies or follow a particular curriculum. But the most restrictive of the authorizer bunch tend to be the school districts, according to the new analysis.

The report says that most of the restrictions that charter schools face have to do with teacher-certification requirements—a result, perhaps, of the federal No Child Left Behind law's teacher-quality provisions. Seventy percent of schools were also limited in their ability to make midcourse corrections in their contracts. Charter schools were most free, on the other hand, to determine their curricula, set school calendars and teacher work rules, procure supplies, and dismiss incompetent staff members.

To Fordham, a longtime supporter of charter schools, the imposition of restrictions on charters is "akin to tying one arm behind the back of a prizefighter or forcing Monet to paint in mittens." Still, I would argue, when you're dealing with taxpayers' money and other people's children, it's probably necessary to keep some rules in place. The question is: Where to draw the line?

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