In yesterday’s installment on “Waiting for Superman,” I closed by asking why the students who wanted to enter a charter school had to be on a wait list or endure a lottery. The short answer: laws on the books today are part of the problem.
In his book, Learning as We Go: Why School Choice is Worth the Wait, Paul T. Hill asks why there aren’t more “schools of choice.” After all, in 2007, the median number of charter schools in states that allow them was “less than forty.” While (some of) those schools may provide a tremendous service to the children they enroll, that’s still a small number of schools.
What’s going on? One factor is that the legal environment, which constrains the development of new quality schools, including charter schools.
- Charter schools get less money than school districts get–“often as little as 65 percent of the amount to run against regular public schools”–so it’s hard to hire teachers used to district pay scales. It’s also hard to compete for new teachers.
- Charter schools must pay for capital costs out of operating budgets, making it hard for existing charter schools to expand.
- Charter schools must pay for retirement plans out of operating budgets, making it hard for existing charter schools to expand. (In some states, retirement funding for district teachers is a state responsibility.)
- Some states cap the number of charter schools allowed. This blunt instrument is not, fortunately, in place in Minnesota.
In addition to legal impediments, there are simply business challenges.
- It’s hard to start and run a good school. There’s a significant learning curve involved, especially if you’re talking about a relatively new model of governance and operation.
- It’s hard to find suitable teachers. Teachers from school districts are often unwilling to give up the security and certainty of the district for the uncertainty and risks of a charter school. Alternative certification programs can turn out only a fraction of the teachers charter schools need. Consequently, “the supply of teachers able and willing to work in schools of choice might be the most important constraint on scale.”
So what should we do? Putting as much money into charter schools as we do into school districts would be a good start. Next week, I’ll suggest something more dramatic.