Untying the Hands of an Effective School

How can we make schools better for all kids? The first step might be untying the hands of schools that are already effective.

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By David Boyle

Quality education is a cornerstone of the American Experiment and is vital to its leadership role in the Free World. To maintain this leadership role, we must ensure that our education system is second-to-none. Unfortunately, today, the United States lags behind many countries in education achievement and is losing ground every year, ranking only 25th in mathematics among all industrialized countries. Charter schools are one proposed solution to improving educational achievement among our students nationwide and in Alaska.

First, it’s important to know that charter schools are public schools. Upon approval from “authorizers,” charter schools can be started by any parent, educator, or taxpayer wanting more choices and better outcomes for children. Currently, 39 states, including Alaska and Washington, D.C., have charter school laws. Better charter laws give charter schools independence from burdensome state and local regulations and adequate flexibility over such things as budgetary decisions, teaching styles, subject foci, and classroom and school settings. Poor laws, on the other hand, give charters little to no freedom and flexibility at all.

Alaska has one of the nation’s worst charter laws in which charter schools have little independence from the government school districts. Restrictive Alaska laws specify the establishment, organization, staffing, and funding of charter schools.

For example:
Alaska law requires that charter schools be approved by the local school board and the state Board of Education and Early Development (AS 14.03.250) before they can operate. This rule can make it very difficult for state residents who want to start a charter school because there are several disincentives for the district school board to grant a charter. First, a new (charter) school would provide greater competition to the traditional public school and subsequently institute greater accountability. Moreover, because charter schools are public schools, the district school board is required to provide the same per student funding amount to charter schools that it provides to traditional district schools(AS 14.03.260) When more students choose charter schools, it means the traditional—and underperforming—schools will lose funding.

Also, after a charter is granted to parents who wish to start a school, the budget of that school must be approved by the district school board. Again, to protect their traditional schools, district school boards have an incentive to hamstring the budget approval process of charter schools.

Alaska laws create loopholes that allow districts to take funding away from parents choosing charter schools. Even though the Anchorage School District (ASD) receives $407 per charter student in transportation dollars from the State, the charter parents are required to provide their own transportation. The district pockets the extra State funding. This is not equal opportunity for all students in the district. In the Anchorage School District, this translates to nearly $977,000 that is withheld from parents simply because they—not government bureaucrats—have chosen the public school that works best for their child.

Alaska law locks Anchorage charter schools into union contracts that they had no say in negotiating. In order for charter schools to be successful, laws must allow them to hire qualified professionals who fit their teaching and schooling models. If a school cannot hire the teachers it wants to hire, it is giving up a great deal of its effectiveness. ASD charter schools must reject a number of qualified, experienced professionals because Anchorage charter schools are forced to hire only teachers approved by a union contract. The principal must be from the school district as well. Even the custodians must be hired from the ASD employee list. As a result, charter school leaders have no real local control over their greatest expense: personnel costs (personnel makes up 89% of ASD’s budget).

Every charter school in Anchorage has an academic policy committee, made up of parents. This committee should be allowed to select staff for the school without union restrictions. The focus, after all, should be on what serves children, not adults, the best.

Collective bargaining agreements aren’t about the kids. In May of 2010, a teacher in a Tacoma school was scheduled to be transferred to another school because of declining enrollment. The students loved 27 year old English teacher Ronnie Gordon, but because of the seniority rules of the school district, Ronnie would be the first to go. An article pointing out the story concludes, “While seniority rules help unions by preventing possible disputes between union members, they aren’t doing much for students .” Not only are charter schools in Alaska forced to participate in a similarly broken system, they don’t have a voice in the negotiations.

In spite of these obstacles deliberately put in their way by the education bureaucracy and anti-reform legislators, charter schools in the ASD perform well above their traditional school counterparts. And it’s important to note that charter schools—because they are public schools—must take all Alaskan students on a first-come, first-served basis. If more students apply than there are seats available, they must hold a lottery. Charters schools cannot discriminate in their admissions process.

That said, charter schools’ academic performance is even more impressive. On the 2009-2010 State SBA reading tests, Aquarian Charter School students score 15 percentage points higher than their counterparts in the traditional district schools. Likewise, The Eagle Academy Charter students, learning in a used-car showroom, score 13 percentage points higher in reading than ASD students in traditional schools. These are statistically significant differences in students scoring at or above the “proficient” levels. It’s easy to break the code:  Parental involvement and student engagement can overcome restrictive State statutes and school district policies to ensure students’ success.

Why don’t the State and the school districts untie the hands of these charter schools? Do they fear the unions and political backlash? What they should not fear is effective, challenging and motivating schools. What they should not fear is a parent wanting the best education possible for his child.  What they should not fear is allowing all students the choice to find the best fit for their education.  What they should not fear is all our children reaching for the stars and keeping this great country the leader in the Free World.

David Boyle is a Research Associate with the Alaska Policy Forum.