Demystifying School Choice

This week at the Fordham Foundation’s event on the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s new state-by-state report on the health of the charter school movement, Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board and a member of NACSA’s Board of Directors made a critical point. When asked about the reasons behind the success of charter schools in his city (D.C. was ranked first in the nation in the Alliance report), Scott explained that in addition to a strong charter law, a vibrant philanthropic and advocacy community and a wealth of great people, the District also has an effective authorizer. Moreover, he said, the District doesn’t just have an authorizer that is committed to quality–one that only approves schools that are likely to succeed and closes those that are failing–but also “an authorizer that has a real commitment to equity, making sure that charter schools act as public schools, that they serve all students.”

Scott is absolutely right. The success of charter schools doesn’t doesn’t just depend on strong policy, great people, and energetic support. Charter school success also depends on quality authorizers–authorizers who uphold high standards, ensure that schools have the flexibility they need to succeed and protect student rights and the public interest.

In describing his authorizing organization’s commitment to equity, Scott highlighted a practice that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and one that I hope other authorizers across the country will emulate. Scott described DCPCSB’s Mystery Shopper Program–a strategy his organization uses to ensure that charter schools are not discouraging students with special needs from applying and enrolling. Throughout the school year, DCPCSB staff pretending to be prospective parents of special education students randomly call schools to inquire about enrollment. Schools that discourage “mystery shoppers” from enrolling “mystery children” are held accountable, and schools with repeated violations can have their charters revoked.

This is a bold but totally reasonable–and effective–practice that demonstrates that DCPCSB does not just talk about equity. It takes concrete steps to ensure it. It’s not a program designed to punish schools; it’s not used as a gotcha–schools were informed of the effort before it began and know that they could be called at any time. Rather, it puts schools on notice that they are truly public schools with real public obligations and real consequences for failure to live up to them. It demonstrates that charter schools really are accountable in ways that other public schools are not–accountable to their authorizers and to the public whose trust they are charged with upholding.

School choice doesn’t just happen. It takes real work. Authorizers play a critical role in making it work for all children.

Want to learn more about DCPCSB’s Myster Shopper program? Join us at NACSA’s Annual Leadership Conference. We’ll be talking about this and other ways that charter school authorizers are working to ensure that the schools they authorize live up to their promise and act like the public schools they are.