You know that moment when you have an epiphany. I experienced such a moment while listening to EdChoice President and CEO Robert C. Enlow at the Amplify School Choice Conference earlier this month. Amplify School Choice is a project of the Franklin Center.
Enlow spoke about school choice trends across America and the phenomenon of institutional isomorphism. He explained that over time institutions begin to look like each other. Enlow said that charter schools are beginning to look like traditional public schools, noting that public support for charter schools is decreasing. He warned that advocates are losing the argument for school choice.
I’m a longtime supporter of school choice. That said, Enlow attached a process to my inchoate concern about Philadelphia’s charter schools. To be sure, there are high quality charter schools in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, including Boys Latin, KIPP and Mastery. High performing schools show love not by merely instilling discipline; they instill in their students a thirst for learning.
Bad charter schools mirror traditional public schools with respect to student performance, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest. In Philadelphia, the decision to revoke a charter school’s license is subject to political pressure. As a result, chronically low-performing and mismanaged charter schools are allowed to operate for years.
In 2015, Philadelphia magazine published this advice for parents:
It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to Google any schools you’re looking at, to make sure they weren’t once unexpectedly shut down or run by a CEO who pleaded guilty to theft.
Comedian John Oliver honed in on that recommendation in a recent edition of his HBO show "Last Week Tonight."
In an open letter to Oliver, Boys' Latin Charter School Co-Founder Janine Yass wrote:
I have been involved in education reform for over 15 years in the poor city of Philadelphia where over 40,000 children are on charter school waiting lists to escape the horrendous public school system.
Yes, bad ones should close, but what about the bad public schools that continue to operate half full with no teaching going on?!
The response to bad charter schools is accountability, accountability, accountability. The importance of accountability was underscored by Colorado state Rep. Angela Williams during a panel discussion at the Amplify School Choice Conference. Williams said there should be clear and comprehensive accountability standards, and automatic closure of lowest-performing schools.
In response to my question about the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on new charter schools, Rep. Williams said:
What are the laws in your state that create a platform for accountability? We don’t need to be sending our kids to failing schools, whether charter or traditional public schools. I’m not going to stand by and send our kids to failing schools. Charter schools can be successful with the right funding and right governance.
On August 24, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the creation of a new office within the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Division of Charter Schools. Wolf said in a statement:
Charter schools play an important role in our education system, but that role must be accompanied by sufficient oversight. Establishing this new division within the Department of Education will allow us to maximize our resources to not only ensure charters are being properly supported, but that they are being held accountable to taxpayers.
Bob Fayfich, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement:
If this initiative is consistent with other actions by the Governor relative to undermining the viability of charter schools, regardless of how effective they are in educating children, then this new Charter Office is something to be concerned about. If, however, this new division is truly dedicated to listening to charter schools and improving public education for all students in Pennsylvania, then we will be supportive.
The fact that no charter school has been consulted in the creation of this office is not a good start, but we will see how the office is funded and staffed and watch closely what it actually does.
Charter school advocates rightly question Wolf’s motive, but there is no question that school choice must be about more than autonomy. Advocates must embrace accountability in equal measure. To that end, they should ensure that a “platform for accountability” is codified in House Bill 530 which the legislature is expected to take up in the fall.
The promise of school choice was that parents would be able to choose from a menu of quality charter schools. And that competition would improve traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, school choice is morphing into two sets of low-performing schools with different governance. With rigorous accountability, charter schools will amplify qualitatively better choices.