The recent release of Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of State Public Charter School Laws, Tenth Edition provides an opportune time to reflect on the importance of tracking the progress that states are making to improve the policy environment supporting charter schools and the students they serve. Additionally, and equally importantly, it offers the chance to reflect on what the collection of this information can mean for research and future policy.
Understanding the policy contexts in which charter schools operate can provide valuable insights into the mechanisms that support or hinder charter school success. This becomes particularly important when we look at the evolution of those policies and how they relate to educational outcomes of students in charter schools.
The policy process is dynamic—or at least it should be—and policies in all areas rarely get it right the first time. Whether it is problems with implementation, unintended consequences, or some unforeseen oversight, the feedback loop becomes incredibly important. This loop cannot exist without knowing where current policies stand and what they mean for educational outcomes.
As the charter movement has learned what works and what doesn’t over the last ten years, we have improved the way in which we define the model law. This can only be done by linking the model charter laws with student and school outcomes and utilizing the variation across states to see what’s working and what isn’t.
Just as we want charters to be the leaders of innovation in schools, we need to be the leaders of the innovation of policies to support them. With stronger more supportive laws, and a connection to outcomes, we can ensure that charter schools and the students that they serve have the tools they need to be successful.
One recent example of the relationship between strong charter laws and educational success can be found in a recent study released by Stanford University’s CREDO that evaluates charter performance in Indianapolis. While the study did not test the causal effects of Indiana’s charter laws and charter school performance, the study’s findings coupled with other research (e.g. Baude et al.) begin to provide key insights that charter schools and the policies that support them are inextricably linked and both have improved over time.
This isn’t a destination focused journey. Rather, this is a journey of continual improvement. One which can only be achieved if we are constantly pushing ourselves and asking if we can do better. The state rankings report and the data it provides is an important first step; and, when connected to school and student outcomes, can be a powerful tool for improving policies, but most importantly, the educational opportunities for all students.
Nathan Barrett, Ph.D., is the senior director of research & evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.