Lately, charter school talk has been dominated by news coming out of Washington. From the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to President Trump's recent unveiling of a 2018 budget blueprint (which proposed increases to school choice programs, including $168 million, a 50 percent increase, for the Charter Schools Program that seeds the growth of new charter schools and replication and expansion of successful existing programs), the news has been squarely focused inside the Beltway.
While the federal government plays an important role in shaping the nation's education priorities, most of the actual decisions made about schools, and school choice in particular, are made at the state and local level. This was reinforced just last week when Kentucky became the 44th state to allow charter schools. (Washington, D.C., also has a robust charter sector.) The laws and policies that make charter schools possible and create the conditions for their success are largely handled in state capitals across the country.
The importance of state laws to charter school growth is why the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools publishes its annual ranking of state charter school laws. The 2017 ranking came out last week, and, for the second year in a row, Indiana came out on top.
The rankings check state charter school laws against the National Alliance's model charter school law, using 21 criteria that reflect states' support for charter school flexibility, accountability, and funding equity.
Indiana passed its charter school law in 2001 and made major improvements in 2015. The state now has 95 charter schools serving nearly 44,000 students, and its law ranks highly across the board. Indiana puts no cap on charter school growth, which means that parental demand, not political games, are the biggest factor in how quickly the state's charter school movement expands. The state also has multiple charter school authorizers, so that qualified charter school applicants can't be stymied by innovation-averse school boards. And Indiana's law provides a fair amount of flexibility to charter schools while requiring accountability for student performance.
For examples of charter school success in Indiana, state lawmakers can look just beyond the state capitol grounds in Indianapolis. For years, city leaders, local education officials, education-oriented philanthropic organizations, and charter school leaders have worked together to find ways to meet the diverse needs of the city's students.
Indianapolis charter school founder Kevin Kubacki recently testified before a U.S. House subcommittee on the successful working relationship between his schools and Indianapolis Public Schools. He opened Enlace Academy in 2013 with the idea of making it a community hub for the school's families. After several years of strong community engagement and impressive student growth, the school district asked Kubacki's team to take over a struggling district school, which is now known as Kindezi Academy and hopes to follow the same successful path that Enlace took.
The state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis are demonstrating how students benefit when good policy allows charter schools to be diverse, flexible, and innovative. Unfortunately, not every state has an environment conducive to charter school success. Maryland, which has the weakest charter school law in this year's rankings, provides little flexibility, insufficient autonomy, and inequitable funding to charter schools. Recent efforts by Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., to reform the law have run into resistance from the usual defenders of the status quo.
The good news is that several states with recently-enacted charter laws appear near the top of this year's rankings, including Alabama in second place and Washington state in fourth. Although late adopters in the charter school movement, these states looked carefully at the best practices in states with more mature charter school movements and crafted laws that position their future charter schools to succeed. Kentucky's new law is also closely aligned with the National Alliance's model law.
The famed "laboratories of democracy" are driving charter school success, as states figure out what works best in providing high-quality public school options for their students. The federal government should take note. The Trump administration and Congress can help expand school choice by funding the growth of charter schools through the Charter School Program and then letting the states do their thing. Indiana, Alabama, Washington, and others at the top of this year's rankings point the way forward for states that want to build and scale successful charter school movements.
Nina Rees (@Ninacharters) is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
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