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Commentary By Charles Upton Sahm

A Charter-School Education for John Oliver

Education, Education Pre K-12, Pre K-12

On his HBO show, the comedian drew a grossly unfair caricature of the sector

Sunday night, HBO’s John Oliver directed his acid wit toward charter schools in an 18-minute segment that eschewed whether charters are effective and instead focused on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada, whose lax charter laws have led to mismanagement and even corruption.

“By painting all states with a broad brush, Oliver presented a one-sided story.”

Oliver neglected to note that two of those states-Florida and Ohio-recently tightened their charter oversight or that most other states take charter authorization and accountability much more seriously.

Charters are public schools based on a contract, or “charter,” between an authorizer and operator. In exchange for autonomy from many district regulations, school operators agree to be accountable for results. Typically, charter agreements run five years. If a school isn’t meeting achievement goals, its authorizer can decide not to renew its charter or only provisionally renew it for a limited period. Charters can be revoked anytime if schools are deemed unsafe or if there’s financial malfeasance.

Charters first appeared 25 years ago, with basically two schools of thought regarding authorization.

First is the “hand them out like candy” approach, whereby states give charters to almost any group that applies, believing that if they don’t do a good job, parents will vote with their feet and the school will close.

Second is the “serious, slow and steady” approach, whereby states give charters only to organizations with proven track records or new groups with well-designed plans and buy-in from the community they’ll serve. Mounting evidence indicates that states that employ the second approach, including New York and New Jersey, see better results.

New York’s two charter authorizers, SUNY and the Board of Regents, take their jobs seriously. (The city DOE formerly authorized charters, but no longer does.) Both employ a rigorous approval process. Susan Carello, head of SUNY’s authorizing board, notes: “At SUNY, only 18% of first-time applicants have been awarded charters since 1999.” That figure increases to 33% for second-time applicants and charters with proven track records seeking to replicate; even then, Carello states: “It’s not a rubber stamp.” The Regents’ approval rates are similarly low.

This high bar is one reason charters outperformed their district counterparts in both English and math on this year’s state tests.

Once a charter is approved, there are inspections, financial audits, and academic and programmatic benchmarks that must be met. Twenty-nine charters — over 10% of the 281 that have been opened statewide — have had their charters revoked or not renewed by their authorizers because of poor academic performance or financial misconduct. The de Blasio administration deserves credit for shuttering five underperforming charters that the city once authorized, especially since three had unionized teaching staffs. (One wishes the administration applied similar accountability to district schools.)

New Jersey opened its first charters in 1997. Initially, the state didn’t take authorization seriously enough, giving charters to almost all that applied. Some early charters, like Newark’s North Star Academy, have proved wildly successful. But overall, the performance of the sector was mixed.

Slowly, the state began to vet candidates more seriously. When Chris Cerf became Jersey’s education commissioner in 2010, he further tightened authorization and accountability. During his four-year tenure, the state opened 37 new charters and shut down 10 with poor academic results or financial problems. A 2013 report by Stanford’s CREDO education research team found New Jersey charters generating “some of the largest learning gains we have seen to date.” A 2015 CREDO analysis of student achievement in urban charters put Newark just behind Boston as tops nationwide.

“A more nuanced, thoughtful take would note that many states take charter accountability seriously...”

Cerf, now superintendent of schools in Newark, notes: “It’s the responsibility of public authorities to hold all schools accountable for success, be they charters or traditional district schools.” He acknowledges that the “responsibility is especially high for charters, which are given the privilege of running a public school in consideration for a promise of educational excellence . . . When authorizers take that role seriously, as we do in New Jersey, charters thrive. When authorizers fail to discharge that responsibility, their performance is uneven at best.”

By painting all states with a broad brush, Oliver presented a one-sided story. A more nuanced, thoughtful take would note that many states take charter accountability seriously and that those states employing the “serious, slow and steady” approach produce better results.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News


Charles Sahm is the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News