School Choice

Regulating the Innovation Out of Charter Schools

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Arizonans may not be able to spell "red tape," but they know it when they're drowning in the stuff.

Yesterday evening, I spent an hour and a half at my son's charter school, listening to the married couple who founded the place in 1995 explain that they were exhausted and overwhelmed by a steadily growing regulatory burden, and that's why they were turning over the keys to a multi-school management company. EdKey Inc./Sequoia Schools, the company assuming the responsibility, has a decent reputation and a good track record, but the passing of the torch has troubling implications for those of us who see school choice as not just an opportunity for private enterprise, but for a diversity of approaches to maximize the chances of reaching a world of very different kids.

My son's school uses a curriculum developed at Hillsdale College, but this small-town-y area also offers charter Montessori schools, a charter Waldorf school and other privately run, publicly funded options — enough attractive alternatives (without even discussing private schools or the healthy homeschooling community) that the floundering school district started an International Baccalaureate school to compete. Which is as it should be. A fair sprinkling of educational entrepreneurs have effectively enlivened an area not known for its larnin'-friendly culture, in a state where public schools consistently draw a gentleman's C when they're graded on their efforts to teach kids … anything.

But the thing about entrepreneurs is that they have limited resources, and only so much attention to divide up in different directions. Starting up a school is challenging enough, and if you start binding them in red tape, something has to give.

In a 2005 OpEd, Vicki Murray of the Goldwater Institute pointed out that "Until now, parents, teachers, and school personnel have opened roughly 70 percent of all charter schools in Arizona." But, she warned:

At last count, Arizona charter schools have to comply with close to 100 regulations, and there is evidence of an emerging trend that charter schools are converting to private schools in response. … One example of the significant cost of regulatory compliance for Arizona charter schools concerns enrollment. The state requires charter schools to maintain duplicate student enrollment databases, costing thousands of dollars each, and to re-enter estimated enrollment figures from scratch every 10 days for 10 months out of the year. Under current state charter school regulations, simply obtaining a student headcount resembles a NASA space mission in complexity and cost.

Two years later, the Goldwater Institute sued Arizona over the state's attempt to impose a standard curriculum on charter schools that would largely strip them of their innovative edge. The case was settled out of court, so its merits were never addressed in a binding decision. Regulations have only tightened since then, and that's at the state level.

Last year, responding to complaints about the federal regulatory burden on schools, the House Education and Workforce Committee held hearings after acknowledging that a "complex web of mandates and regulations redirects resources from students and reduces local education leaders' abilities to enact targeted reforms that improve student achievement." Subsequently, the committee asked (PDF) the Government Accountability Office to investigate which school-related regulations are the most burdensome, and what is being done to provide relief.

Of course, much of that red tape applies to traditional public schools, too, but as overwhelmed as school districts with dedicated compliance officers and even full staffs are, the ordeal for independent charter schools is much worse.

Which is why my son's school has turned to a professional management company that runs over a dozen schools for rescue from the bureaucracy. More independent schools are likely to do the same, which suggests a future of consolidation and decreased diversity as the small players are squeezed out by an avalanche of rules and requirements, even where that red tape doesn't inherently discourage experimentation.