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3 Things That Matter for Charter Schools

• Cara Candal

It’s National Charter Schools Week and we are excited share the first blog from new ExcelinEd team member Dr. Cara Stillings Candal who will be heading up the organization’s policy work in private school choice. You may know her from her 2018 book, The Fight for the Best Charter Public Schools in the NationDr. Candal takes this opportunity to tell us what the most important things are that families and policy makers need to know about charter schools. 

When it comes to charter schools, policymakers need to know that three things matter: autonomy, accountability and the opportunity to innovate. 

In my book, I discuss in detail the lessons that other states can learn—both positive and negative—from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Boston’s charter public school sector has been called one of the highest performing in the nation. Several gold standard studies find great advantages for students who attend Boston’s charters, including better outcomes in reading and math, increased graduation and college-going rates, and higher earning potential. What contributes to these outcomes? Boston’s charter school leaders cite the autonomy the state grants them, both under law and in practice, as a major reason. Commonwealth charter schools have real freedom to innovate in curriculum and pedagogy and to assemble a mission-aligned staff that is qualified to do the work. But when those autonomies don’t produce strong outcomes, Massachusetts’s charter schools are held strictly accountable. The state takes the charter renewal process very seriously, assessing every element of a school’s commitment to students and families. It doesn’t hesitate to close schools that don’t perform. 

But it’s not all perfect in Massachusetts. In recent years public opinion toward charter schools has turned, despite tens of thousands of students on waiting lists. This was most evident in the now-infamous 2016 defeat of a ballot question asking voters to raise the charter school cap, which the opposition—funded by the state’s two teachers unions—soundly defeated. Even parents in the state’s major cities, who often view charters as escape valves from struggling district schools, had begun to see charter schools as monolithic.  

 This is in part because in 2010 Massachusetts’s legislators struck an ill-conceived deal to lift one of the Commonwealth’s two charter school caps that were in place at the time. The “smart cap” allows for more charter schools in underperforming districts but mandates that those schools can only be operated by “proven providers.” With this deal, the state prevented innovative new operators from entering the cities where demand for charter public schools is highest. Parents know that charters can promise strong academic outcomes, but they no longer see the diversity of offerings that once existed in the charter sector. By implementing the “smart cap” Massachusetts put its thumb on the scale for replication, rather than innovation, and it stalled the growth of one of the most promising charter school sectors in the nation.  

 Unfortunately, Massachusetts has not been the only state to do this. Texas, home to some of the highest-performing charter networks in the country, provides another example. The Lone Star state has erected authorizing barriers that prevent innovative operators from entering the sector. Like Massachusetts, Texas seems to have forgotten that balance matters, and that innovation has always been a primary reason for chartering schools. 

 Other states can learn a lot from Massachusetts. They can also learn from the policies that ExcelinEd supports, including real autonomy for public charter schools to provide distinctive options for students and families, strict accountability for outcomes, and laws and regulations designed to foster the meaningful growth of innovative, high-quality charter sectors instead of policies that place arbitrary caps on parent choice and student progress. As we reflect on what National Charter School Week means to families and communities, let us remember the three things that matter when opening charter schools and creating opportunities for kids to reach their full potential: autonomy, accountability and opportunity to innovate.

About the author

Cara Candal

Cara Candal serves as Director of Educational Opportunity, focusing on private school choice, for ExcelinEd. Cara has spent the last 10 years working in education policy as a Senior Fellow with both Pioneer Institute and the Center for Education Reform. She was also a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and a research assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Development. Cara has authored/edited more than 25 papers and three books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Masters of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Doctorate of Education from Boston University.