This year, National School Choice Week coincides with Martin Luther King Day. It’s a fortuitous conjunction. Dr. King dedicated his life to justice and opportunity for African Americans — for all Americans, in fact. And school choice has been pivotal to delivering on that promise in the modern era.
Surveys consistently show that African-American families are some of the strongest supporters of school choice. The opportunity to choose their child’s school empowers families to break out of school systems that have not served students well.
While economically privileged families have always had the opportunity to exercise school choice, either by paying for private school tuition or moving to a high-quality school district, options such as public charter schools are finally making choice available to families regardless of their economic means.
When it comes to choice, quality matters. Giving families the ability to choose between multiple subpar schools isn’t much of a choice. Families certainly choose schools for reasons that go beyond test scores; school safety is a top consideration for parents. But our goal should be to give every parent access to multiple high-quality schools.
Education advocates advance this goal by publishing an annual ranking of state charter school laws. The rankings — now in their 10th year — are based on more than 25 years of studying which policies and practices correlate with having great charter schools. Experience tells us that states can create the conditions for high-quality charter schools by providing — among other things — flexibility, funding equity, non-district authorizers, facilities support and accountability. We’ve captured these qualities in our model state law, and the rankings assess how well each state’s law aligns with our model.
For the fourth year in a row, Indiana has the strongest charter school law in the country. The state does not cap charter school growth, includes multiple authorizers and provides a fair amount of autonomy and accountability. Indiana has made notable strides in recent years to provide more equitable funding to charter schools, although some work still needs to be done. And the state is a leader in tackling the quality challenges associated with virtual schooling.
Georgia made the biggest jump in this year’s rankings, moving up 11 spots from number 27 to number 16. Leaders in Georgia enacted legislation in 2018 that improved the state’s policies for special education, funding, and full-time virtual charter schools.
At the bottom of the list is Maryland. While Maryland’s law does not cap charter school growth, it allows only school districts to authorize charter schools — even though districts are often averse to approving schools they view as competitors. Maryland’s law also provides little autonomy, insufficient accountability, and inequitable funding to charter schools.
New York experienced the largest drop in this year’s rankings – although only from number 14 to number 17. New York’s challenge is that its existing caps on charter schools now leave limited room for growth in New York City, which has some of the most successful charter schools in the country. As the state celebrates its 20th year of offering charter school choices to families, Gov. Cuomo and state leaders should work to ensure that families waiting for their chance to send their child to a charter school don’t miss out.
In fact, states with older charter school laws, such as New York, Arizona, and Louisiana, are being passed in the rankings by newer-law states including Washington (No. 3), Alabama (No. 5), and Mississippi (No. 6), which have relied on the lessons learned by other states to come out of the gate with strong laws. These states now serve as models for leaders in older-law states who want to freshen their laws.
Overall, the rankings report shows a picture of an educational movement in good health, with states continually looking for ways to improve their charter schools and leveraging school choice to give students access to new kinds of schools that suit the way they learn.
Good laws are only a starting point, of course. Just as the work of Dr. King is far from finished, the work of charter school and school choice advocates continues. Good laws must be implemented well, with as much room as possible for parents, teachers and school leaders to shape the direction of their schools to meet the needs of their students.
School choice, guided by a good charter school law, makes it possible for more students to find a school in which they can flourish. Until every student has that opportunity, our work continues.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.