Charter Law Rankings: Indiana, Alabama at Top

Charter Law Rankings: Indiana, Alabama at Top
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In this Aug. 25, 2014 photo, Jacob Webb pulls his younger sister, Sydney, 5, out of the way as their mother, Leslie Webb, takes a photo of their sister, Chloe, 8, on the first day of school at the new Dugger-Union Indiana Cyber Charter School in Dugger, Ind. (AP Photo/The Tribune-Star, Joseph C. Garza)

RCEd Commentary

Indiana and Alabama have reason to celebrate: They top the seventh annual ranking of state charter school laws. Maryland, not so much.

The rankings, by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, come just in time for National School Choice Week (January 24-30). Charter schools are an essential element of school choice because, just like other public schools, they’re free and open to all. High-quality charter schools put a variety of school models within reach of parents and students who need better school options.

This year, Indiana takes the top spot thanks to several reforms it passed in 2015. Indiana strengthened its charter application process, bolstered authorizer accountability, and created a new $500 per student allotment to help charter schools cover facilities and transportation costs. The state also created a new $50 million public charter school loan program that will allow charter schools to borrow at low interest to purchase or improve facilities and meet other educational needs. Both of these enhanced funding provisions are contingent on charter schools meeting performance benchmarks, to ensure that money is directed to schools that are getting results for students.

The improvements in Indiana’s law capped a multi-year effort by several key legislative leaders working with two governors to get reform right. In the first National Alliance charter law rankings in 2010, Indiana ranked No. 29. The state’s commitment to improving its law to better serve its students is paying off with this year’s No. 1 ranking.

The National Alliance’s rankings consider several key factors when assessing state charter school laws. Quality is one. The best laws have provisions that require strong accountability of both schools and authorizers, the entities that approve and monitor charter schools. Accountability includes closing schools that don’t serve students well.

Funding is another important factor. States that are most supportive of charter schools provide the same level of funding to charters as they do to other public schools, and they include funding for costs such as facilities and transportation, which often go overlooked.

Finally, charter school operators that have proven their ability to help students achieve should be able to expand and replicate to serve more students. States that avoid putting artificial caps on charter school growth and reduce red tape to facilitate charter school expansion and replication get high marks.

Alabama is also notable in this year’s rankings because the state passed its very first charter school law in 2015 and it enters the rankings this year at No. 2. State leaders carefully examined the lessons learned over 25 years of evolving charter school policy in other states and applied those lessons when crafting their new law. As a result, the state’s charter school law includes strong accountability, growth, and funding provisions. We expect big things when Alabama launches its first charter public schools in the fall of 2017.

Other states, including Oklahoma, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Ohio, passed important reforms that will improve accountability and put high-quality charter schools within reach of more students. And Minnesota, which passed the very first charter school law in 1991 and topped the National Alliance rankings for five of the past six years, has maintained the strength of its law.

Unfortunately, some states rank poorly. Delaware is the only state to have dropped in the rankings because of the passage of anti-charter legislation, slipping from No. 19 to No. 24 because lawmakers passed a moratorium on new charter schools in the city of Wilmington. Reducing access to charters in urban areas makes little sense given the impressive results these schools have delivered for urban and underprivileged students in particular.

Delaware’s neighbor Maryland is once again ranked at the bottom of the list of charter school laws. Among its many shortcomings, Maryland’s law doesn’t provide the clarity and support charter school operators need to be successful. In particular, the law fails to provide school leaders the flexibility they need to innovate, it shortchanges charter schools on funding, and it includes vague accountability provisions that make quality hard to gauge and respond to. Furthermore, authority for approving charter school creation and expansion rests entirely in the hands of local school boards, which have too often demonstrated their hostility to charter schools.

Amazingly, the city of Baltimore does contain several high-performing charters, despite a low-quality law. But it’s nearly impossible for these schools to replicate and expand, which denies too many students the opportunity to attend a better school.

Laggards aside, the overall trend in state charter school laws over the past seven years has been toward stronger accountability for schools and authorizers, providing more equitable funding and facilities support to charter school students, and replicating charter schools that are getting results for students. More and more lawmakers have seen the evidence that charter schools are giving parents quality public school options for their children’s education. As states including Kentucky and West Virginia write charter school laws for the first time, and many more states work to improve their laws, they should turn to states such as Indiana, Alabama, and Minnesota for examples of how to get it right.

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