Early last month, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a report on charter schools in New Jersey. CREDO found that, on average, students in New Jersey charter schools are making greater gains in both reading and math than their counterparts in traditional public schools.
In 2009, another CREDO report famously found that, across the nation, charter schools' records were generally no stronger than traditional district schools. How to square these findings with the new report? That's easy: charter school policy is state policy and authorization procedures make all the difference.
Principled charter defenders have always understood that quality can vary and that a wide-open charter school policy is not necessarily a good one. Prospective operators must be carefully vetted and then held accountable for their schools' results. The initial vetting is arguably more important, because closing down underperforming charters is often easier to recommend than to accomplish. Just as with the case of teacher quality, improving quality control over inputs will prevent many headaches down the road.
New Jersey is known for having a strong authorization process that is neither overly restrictive nor lacking in oversight and accountability. In this 2003 Fordham Institute report on the topic, New Jersey received a "B+" for its authorization practices, trailing only Massachusetts, Texas and North Carolina.
The CREDO results prove that the Fordham researchers were prescient. Here is what Andy Smarick, former Deputy Commissioner of Education in New Jersey said of the CREDO study:
The reason I find these results so exciting and so gratifying is because they show what is possible when the right charter strategies are employed. When I worked for the New Jersey Department of Education, we were careful to allow only the best, most-prepared schools to open. We enabled the very best charters to grow (like the KIPP TEAM and North Star campuses in Newark). And we were willing to close those that weren't living up their responsibilities.
Of course, balance is key here. States with overly strict charter policies have seen prized charter operators pass them over or even relocate to more accommodating states.
The essence of charter schools is encourage a more entrepreneurial approach to public education. Hence, the charter movement will always view regulation and bureaucracy with a measure of skepticism. But poorly-thought out and underperforming charters are bad for everyone. They give the charter movement itself a bad name and, obviously, they don't benefit students.