Opinion: Even as ESSA Backpedals on Federal Accountability, Charters Set Tougher Standards

Last week, President Obama signed a new education bill into law that all but eliminates the federal role in accountability for our public schools. But as the federal government retreats, one group within public education is embracing the importance of standards and accountability: charter schools.
Accountability has always been one of the cornerstones of the charter school concept, but for many years, it was not working well. In some states, it was too easy to get approval to open a charter school or too difficult to close those charters that persistently failed.
So a few years ago, charter schools began to get serious.
The clarion call occurred in 2009, when the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford found that only 17% of charter schools were providing a better education for their students while 37% provided an education that was significantly worse.
Four years later, CREDO repeated the study and found meaningful improvements in charter schools with positive outcomes for our students in greatest need. For students living in poverty, CREDO found that charter schools produced the equivalent of an extra 14 days of learning in reading and 22 days in math. Students learning English gained the equivalent of 43 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math. Special education students gained 14 days in both reading and math.
Why did this improvement occur? CREDO found that a major reason for the overall improvement of charter school performance was the closure of failing schools. In other words: Tough accountability for results led to better schools — and better results for more children.
Accountability does not happen on its own; it requires state policies that demand it and charter school authorizing bodies that implement it.
Last week, my organization released its latest report card on accountability provisions in state charter school laws. It shows that state legislatures continue to clarify and strengthen charter school accountability. Over the past three years, 18 states have passed laws that strengthen accountability for charter schools themselves and 13 states have passed laws to hold charter school authorizing bodies accountable for the quality of their work.
Authorizing agencies are also improving. Three years ago, only one in five authorizers were implementing 11 or more of our association’s 12 Essential Practices for authorizers. Today, three out of five of them are.
Legislators and authorizers are not alone. Advocates for charter schools have also been calling for high standards and strong accountability. For each of the past five years, the California Charter Schools Association has identified, by name, charter schools that should be closed because they are failing children. Earlier this year, 42 city- and state-based charter school support organizations signed on to a “Commitment to Quality,” in which they pledged to advocate for the closure of charter schools that are persistently failing.
Despite all of these actions, more work is needed. Authorizers need to continue to close charter schools that persistently fail. Most online charter schools are performing badly. There are serious questions about special education, student discipline and financial transparency among charter schools. Fortunately, the charter school community is facing these issues head on.
Accountability works in our nation’s public charter schools. That may be one reason why, every year, more and more parents enroll their children in a charter school. As power shifts from the federal government to states, now is not the time to retreat from accountability. State and local educators must embrace accountability to improve schools for more children, just as charter schools have been doing.

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