The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has an editorial entitled Overdue Accountability: Online Charters’ Abysmal Record Scrutinized. The editorial makes the very reasonable suggestion that online charter schools should be held accountable for poor performance and held to the same standards as traditional public schools. This comes in the wake of virtual charter schools generally, and Indiana Virtual School in particular, performing poorly. IVS graduated 63 of 985 students. Says the FWJG:
Nearly a decade later, virtual charter schools represent the very worst of Indiana’s public education system, with the state’s three online schools finishing in the bottom 3 percent statewide for test improvement. Each received F’s under the most recent round of grades assigned by the state. Graduation rates are abysmal: Indiana Virtual School had the worst rate in the state, graduating just 63 of 985 students.
But as a committee of the Indiana State Board of Education reviewed their performance last week, virtual charter school officials cried foul – claiming they haven’t had time to prove themselves and arguing they shouldn’t be held to the standards of other public schools because of the students they serve.
“We should be held accountable in more than just the academic arena,” Percy Clark, superintendent for Indiana Virtual School, told committee members. “Every ill that you want to name plagues our students.”
Public schools will surely be crying a river. That’s not to say that external factors don’t affect a school’s performance. They absolutely do. The socioeconomic status of students going into a school are a great predictor of how the school will perform. Some kids are much easier to educate than others (which is why the money-follows-the-child model of school funding is so problematic.) But, traditional public schools are no strangers to being judged based on socioeconomic factors well out of their control.
Rigorous accountability measures can lead to charter schools doing some good. Massachusetts seems to be the primary example of this.
It appears that Massachusetts’ charter laws are responsible, at least in large part, for the superior performance of the state’s charter schools. Indeed, Massachusetts prohibits for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs), and its process for authorizing charter schools is particularly rigorous. According to Alison Bagg, director of charter schools and school redesign at the Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts is one of the few states in which the Department of Education serves as the sole authorizer of charter schools. “You have some states that have hundreds and hundreds of charters schools, all authorized by these districts or non-profits,” Bagg explained to the HPR. In Massachusetts, by contrast, “it has been historically very difficult to get a charter,” and the state has been recognized by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers as “one of the leaders in charter school authorizing nationwide.”
The charter renewal process is also quite rigorous, according to Bagg. The state monitors charter schools closely and has the ability to close charter schools that have achieved poor results—a practice that is not universal across states.
Indiana is unlikely to implement Massachusetts’ approach because the quality of educational opportunities appears to be mostly incidental to the motivations of voucher and charter school enthusiasts in Indiana. Higher priorities seem to be: a) reducing the influence of teachers unions; b) redirecting the flow of education money to friends and well-wishers of policymakers supporting charters; and c) using public money to subsidize religious education. So, I’ll make the bold prediction that the accountability urged by the FWJG editorial board won’t be happening any time soon. (Also, pessimism is often confused for wisdom, and if I’m wrong, I’ll be happy. So, I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.)