Last week I spent time in Washington State to report on the charter school ballot initiative and the gubernatorial race there. The Evergreen State is one of nine states without laws permitting charter schools, but what about the states that do have them?
As Sean Cavanagh reported on his "Charters and Choice" blog Oct. 15, the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter advocacy group in Washington, has just released its model charter school legislation that it says reflects best practices, including the presence of multiple, independent authorizers and no caps on charter school growth. In the same vein, it's worth taking a look back at the center's annual report card on the strength of charter school laws in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, released earlier this year, in which many of the same issues are explored (and critiqued) on a state-specific basis. The report is a mixed bag, at least if you're a supporter of charters.
Just a quick note on the group's scoring system for charter laws: CER permitted a maximum score of 55 points. States earn up to 15 points for having independent or multiple authorizers; up to 10 points for allowing more charters; up to 15 points for charter schools' statutory independence; and up to 15 points for the funding equity they give to charters. They could also lose or gain "implementation" points based on conditions separate from what their laws required.
Let's start with the fact that, from 2011 to 2012, the number of states earning As and Bs from from the center actually increased. In the top category, Arizona, Indiana, and Michigan improved to A grades, joining Minnesota (the state with the nation's oldest charter school law) and D.C., while California fell from an A to a B grade in that time. D.C. comes in first, while Minnesota is second, Indiana is third (improving from eighth last year), Arizona is fourth, and Michigan is fifth.
Arizona (40 points), which according to the center has 539 charter schools serving 136,000 students and ranks fourth overall in its report, gets high marks for the "operational autonomy" from state and local regulations, including a "blanket waiver" from most state rules governing traditional public schools. In one change from its 2011 report on Arizona, CER notes that charters are no longer required to have their teachers participate in the state retirement system.
In moving up from an A to a B this year, Indiana (42 points) gets particularly high marks for the creation of the Indiana Charter School Board in 2011 to authorize charters at the state level, as well as for a new rule for 2012-13 that granted new charters their operating dollars at the start of the school year, instead of in January, which CER says "caused financial strain." There are 63 charters serving 20,400 students in the state.
Finally, in Michigan (40 points), CER was pleased to see that a cap on the number of charter schools, originally enacted in 1993, was lifted during the 2011 legislative session. The number of charters that universities can authorize will go from 300 in 2012 to unlimited starting in 2015, CER reports. In the state, 316 charters have 119,000 students.
In the category of B grades, the number of states rose from nine to 10, with Idaho and Ohio among those that improved. The Buckeye State earned credit in the CER report for increased accountability measures for charters after "a high degree of problems" with unqualified authorizers and schools, the report states.
But it's not all champagne and oysters for charter supporters. Over half of the states (27) earned a C, D, or F grade, and the four states that got big red F grades in 2011 (Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, and Virginia) get the same failing grades this year. That leaves 36 states with either mediocre-to-bad charter laws, or no laws at all, in CER's estimation.
In addition, Jeanne Allen, CER's president, said that even the top-ranked states that aren't just "going through the motions" like many of their counterparts are still far away from "a perfect score." (D.C. earned the highest score with 46 points.)
"The push to raise caps meant little for many states whose laws are so ﬂawed that few new charter applications are being ﬁled, let alone approved. Indeed, as this and previous analyses have revealed, just having a law is not even half the battle," Allen wrote in her introduction to this year's charter law report.