Choking charters with red tape

Choking charters with red tape
In exchange for freedom from regulation, charter schools are judged by results. That’s the theory. In California, charter school operators struggle to comply with nearly as many regulations as conventional public schools. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Although the first dozen charter-school applications approved a decade ago averaged fewer than 20 pages, nowadays they tend to run to more than 100.

Meeting new requirements costs money. Applications alone often require expensive advice from lawyers, accountants and other professionals.

But many charters are cash-poor, especially before they open and can begin collecting public funds linked to attendance. Simply to survive, operators say, they must prize size and scale. Their imperative is grow or die.

California is more regulation-happy than other states, but re-regulation is spreading to other states. The rise in administrative costs is forcing charters to join networks, which encourages financial stability but discourages innovation.

“It’s too hard to start a charter school, and nearly impossible to do it by yourself anymore,” said Howard Lappin, interim president of the Los Angeles County Alliance for Student Achievement, which is trying to start a network of 25 to 30 charter schools in the next five years.

Non-profit “charter management companies” are growing. The story talks about Aspire, which is getting multimillion-dollar donations to start a statewide charter network. It’s run by a former school superintendent, and can afford a central administrative office.

Besides having the capacity and desire to grow, Aspire is in an advantageous position for another reason: Many of the new regulations tie funding for charters to the schools’ willingness to adopt traditional educational methods. That is an approach Aspire has embraced.

For example, funding formulas and regulations favor charters that, like Aspire, are housed in traditional school buildings, as opposed to homes and churches; offer college preparatory curriculums, as opposed to job training; or locate in poor neighborhoods.

I know the Aspire folks, and they’re fine people. Their model is viable. But it shouldn’t be the only way to start a charter school.

Cato’s David Salisbury warns about creeping regulation of private schools that accept vouchers.

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