As a former teacher and school administrator, and now as a professor of educational administration, I have been heavily invested in the process of trying to improve schools and raise student achievement for almost 17 years. I am now convinced there are two things schools need more of if we want to see bigger gains in student learning: autonomy and accountability.
On both counts, charter schools get an "A," and the Kentucky General Assembly should seriously consider the charter legislation proposed by Rep. Brad Montell, R-Shelbyville.
Charter schools are public schools that operate with far more autonomy and accountability than traditional public schools. Under Montell's bill, charter schools may not discriminate against students in enrollment and must follow all laws and regulations relative to student health and safety and school budgeting and finance.
They also have to participate in the same state testing program and meet the same improvement targets as traditional schools. But otherwise, teachers and principals in charter schools are free to innovate curriculum, teaching methods, and the length and structure of the school day.
Significantly, this means charter school administrators also have far more leeway in hiring and evaluating teachers and setting their compensation and benefits. This is, in part, why the state's teachers unions are so opposed to charter schools, but also why charter schools typically operate with much lower per-pupil costs.
But a new study in the Teachers College Record shows that teacher working conditions in charter schools are the same in most ways compared with traditional schools. While the charter teachers said they worked harder, they also reported having much more authority in making school-wide instructional decisions.
This autonomy is good for students. One-size-fits-all state and federal education mandates, while well intentioned, have caused a serious narrowing of curricula and a near-total focus on testing. Individualized student learning, long a goal of good teachers, is harder than ever.
Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, has introduced an alternative to charter school legislation that would create "districts of distinction," giving a select number of regular public schools charter-like autonomy. This is a good idea but schools under Rollins' plan are missing the other "A" that charter schools have in abundance: accountability.
To be fair, all schools in Kentucky face far more scrutiny and accountability for outcomes than in the past. Poor-performing schools can have their principal and school council removed, replace teachers, and even be subject to closure. No schools in the state have ever been shut down because of poor performance, however, and in rural areas this is simply not an option. In all districts, tenured teachers must be reassigned elsewhere unless administrators follow the lengthy, cumbersome (and often unsuccessful) process of having them removed for cause.
Mostly, low-performing schools continue to absorb enormous amounts of taxpayer money with little to show for it.
Charter schools, on the other hand, constantly operate with the ultimate form of accountability: If they fail to attract and retain students or meet state performance targets, they will be closed.
In fact, if they can't attract students, a charter school can't open in the first place. This means that in communities with high-quality schools, there will be little demand for charter schools. And in communities where parents — especially poor parents — long for more public school options for the children, charter schools must do better than their traditional school counterparts or risk losing students and facing closure.
Charter schools aren't a silver bullet that can solve all the state's educational woes. Like every enterprise —like every other school — some charter schools will succeed and others will fail.
Charter schools' autonomy might give them a better chance of succeeding, but their accountability will guarantee that a poor charter school will never continue costing taxpayers money and letting kids down.
And that makes it worth giving charters a chance.