Friendly Fire from AEI

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Everybody seems to have an opinion these days about how to authorize charter schools.

Way at one end of the spectrum are the folks who worry about the messiness of autonomous schools and want to bury them in red tape. And at the other end are groups like American Enterprise Institute – who according to a new report basically want authorizers to get out of the way and let a thousand flowers bloom.

In The Paperwork Pileup, authors Michael Q. McShane, Jenn Hatfield, and Elizabeth English assert that charter authorizers are often creating “onerous and lengthy” application processes that may scare off charter operators. They cite some humdingers, like an authorizer wanting to know how an applicant will respond if a child forgets his or her lunch, and present impressive tables on the length of application documents and the multitudes of tasks they require.

Now, they do have a point, and should be commended for calling attention to the problem of charter applications that go way beyond what’s needed to establish an operator’s qualifications. NACSA works diligently on this very point – our model application runs a mere 22 pages, at the low end of the applications AEI reviewed. And just as the authors ask, we spend a lot of time worrying about charter autonomy – the subject occupies about one-third of our Principles and Standards and has been a focal point of more than 60 authorizer evaluations we’ve done.

So it pains me to say that the authors waste the opportunity to explore serious avenues for streamlining by creating a methodology based on someone’s opinion about what’s “appropriate” when trying to figure out if an applicant knows how to run a charter school. In their view, asking the “how” and “why” question is out of bounds, so applicants shouldn’t have to “explain how the choice of instructional methods will serve students.” Explaining the school’s plan to provide meals is “administrivia.” Asking about the professional development plan is “Kludge.” And, astonishingly, asking about a school’s plans to “provide health services or to ensure student safety” is “inappropriate and onerous.”

This seemingly anti-regulation approach has learned nothing from 23 years of actual authorizing. To wit: The report compares authorizers to the school-system bureaucrats who looked askance when teachers Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin wanted to start KIPP – but boy, is this a misbegotten anecdote. Mike and Dave actually got their original charter as part of the infamous Third Generation (they call them that in Texas), which got waved through a politically-driven process in 1998. Of the 109 charters approved that year, 46 have since been revoked, returned, or non-renewed. The KIPP story actually makes the case for thorough vetting.

There are some weird uses of data there, too. The authors cite a World Bank study to contend that the average authorizer is running a molasses-like process, in contrast to swift business startups in other countries: “At the top of the list, countries like New Zealand and Canada require only one step, which can take as little as half a day to complete.” Well, not so much. The “one day” it takes to start a business in New Zealand consists of this: “Apply online for registration with the Companies Office (including IRD number application and registration for GST).” This is the equivalent of filing a one-page Intent to Apply for a charter. (“Getting electricity” takes an additional 64 days in Auckland. No, really. I’m not exaggerating.)

Apples, oranges, and kiwi fruit.

I’d really like to see a solid study of why charter applications sometimes suffer from bloat – for example, the tendency of state legislators to push their pet ideas (mentioned but not documented here), or how some authorizers have managed to locate that sweet spot between innovation and caution.

Like I said, a missed opportunity.


PS – I have to add one more thing because it’s repeated in this op-ed by one of the authors: Al Shanker was not the “father” of the charter school movement and saying he “planted the seeds of charter schooling in a speech to the National Press Club in 1988” is historically inaccurate. Ray Budde first wrote about the concept in 1974 and many others, before and after, helped cultivate the “seeds.” Shanker certainly popularized a certain limited notion of charters in his NPC speech (as schools-within-schools, remaining unionized and under the local school board) but then walked away from the movement when it began to deviate from his vision.

And anyway, why keep harking back to anyone’s “original intent” when we’ve got more than two decades of actual experience to guide practice?