When the Blues Brothers posed as the band in a rural bar, Elwood asked what kind of music they usually had. The bartender cheerfully replied, “We got both kinds. We got country and western!” If you are seeking a charter school in a state that heavily regulates them, you can expect a similar kind of answer. They have both kinds of charter schools, “no excuses” and college-prep.
Of course, many parents want charter schools with strict “no excuses”–style discipline that focus narrowly on preparing students to excel on math and reading achievement tests, but not all of them do. One of the great advantages of school choice is that it allows families to find the right kinds of schools for their own children.
Quite often, different kids need different kinds of schools. If states regulate charter schools too heavily, they stifle the variety of approaches that school choice could offer and prevent too many kids from finding the right kind of school for them. We know heavy charter regulation has this negative effect on diversity and innovation in the charter sector because we actually measured it in our new peer-reviewed study.
To gauge regulation, we looked at how the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) assessed the policies governing charter schools in each state. States with higher scores from NACSA are those that more heavily regulate who can open a charter school and how charter performance is evaluated, and force charter schools to close for failing to meet those performance goals, even if parents want them to remain open.
To measure how innovative charter schools are in each state, we examined the websites of 1,261 charter schools that opened at the same time that NACSA issued its ratings, to see how they varied along five dimensions: the type of curriculum they used; the pedagogical approaches used to teach that academic content; the types of students they sought to serve; whether they delivered that education in person, virtually, or with a mixed approach; and whether they had a specialized theme, such as technology, art, or the environment.
Some of the states with the most innovative charter-school sectors included Colorado, North Carolina, and Utah. Colorado has charters focused on math and reading achievement, like KIPP Academy, but they also offer classical-education options, like Liberty Common School, as well as schools using Montessori techniques, such as St. Vrain Community Montessori School.
But Colorado, as well as North Carolina, Utah, and other states with innovative charter-school sectors, receive low marks from NACSA for regulating their charter schools more lightly than NACSA prefers. By contrast, states with high NACSA scores, such as Nevada, Indiana, and Ohio, have a remarkable lack of variety within their charter-school options.
The pattern is unmistakable. More heavily regulated charter-school sectors are generally less innovative and diverse.
Let’s put the choice back in school choice. Severely limiting education options through onerous regulation defeats the purpose of true education freedom. Parents care about a lot more than standardized-test scores. They want a school that is safe, aligns with their values, develops character, and cares about their children.
Some states have figured this out better than others. If policy-makers and charter-school authorizers don’t start ignoring national “experts” such as NACSA and offer families the variety of school options they want, those families might avoid charter schools altogether. States with the most innovative charter schools enroll a higher percentage of students and have been growing that enrollment faster than states with the least innovative charters.
Parents want options, and charter-school regulatory environments must ensure that those options are available.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review