Charting a Course for Charter Schools

By Thomas Hutton

This year has been a momentous one for charter schools. The Obama administration, the 111th Congress, and the national fiscal crisis all have intensified their attention on charter issues. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a shift in the relative importance of charter schools and school districts or signal a change in the relationship between them -- or both.

Candidate Obama signaled strong support for charter schools, and President Obama’s administration is making good on those promises:

• His 2010 budget proposes $268 million for charter schools, a step on the path of doubling charter funding in four years.

• The proposed rules for dispensing $48.6 billion in federal stimulus education grants would require states to provide data on the number of charter schools they permitted, how many are currently operating, and how many closed in the past five years and why they closed.

• The proposed rules for $4.35 billion in Race to the Top (RTTT) grants will take into account the extent to which states have charter school laws that do not limit charter school growth or restrict student enrollment in charters. They also will consider whether states provide charters with equitable funding, including for facilities.

The administration emphasizes increased accountability whenever it voices support for charters overall. RTTT, for example, will also consider whether states have set guidelines for charter authorizing and renewal, as well as whether charter authorizers have a record of closing “ineffective” schools.

We are witnessing a maturing of charter policy, moving beyond the point where charters, by definition, equal reform. The administration’s posture on accountability and the fact that some states are removing charters caps may herald a realization that a focus on the number of charter schools misses the point. But focusing instead on the number of quality charters is incremental progress, at best.

The measure of success -- and the real potential of the charter movement to create change in public education -- lies in what effect charters are having on school districts.

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