In a November 27th Newsweek column Jonathan Alter surprisingly asks, "Why are teachers unions and school boards trying to kill charter schools?" He argues that, "Instead of judging by results, some states (under pressure from "The Blob") have started heavily regulating charter schools, trying to make them more like the ordinary schools they are meant to challenge."
A recent case in my own county seems to confirm Atler's thesis.
What should be more important to school-district administrators, the fact that a school is the highest-performing school in a city or how the school organizes its school hours?
By any reasonable judgment, the Indio Charter School would be considered a success. The school, in the desert of Riverside County, California, offers a four-day week for 300 mostly-Hispanic students in grades K-12. Children attend school from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Indio charter school students attend class for 1910 minutes a week versus 1800 minutes in other California public schools. Of the 9 public elementary and 4 public middle schools in the city of Indio, Indio Charter School had the highest average score on California's Academic Performance Index (API). In fact, the school was 20 points ahead of the second-place school. Indio Charter School also had the highest average reading scores in all grades, except 7th, where it was second.
Despite the Indio charter's academic performance, the county of Riverside continues to penalize the school for offering a nontraditional school schedule. A ruling by the Riverside County Superior Court, upheld the state's right to withhold nearly $ 240,000 from the Indio Charter School. The state penalized the school, saying it failed to follow state attendance laws requiring students to attend classes for at least 175 days a year. Indio Charter School officials contend that their four-day week contains more than the required minutes of instruction and that California law allows charter schools more flexibility in their schedules.
Riverside County looks punitive in its enforcement of the attendance regulations. Although the school had been operating on a four-day week since 1999, Riverside County waited until February of 2002 to begin withholding funds. In other words, the four-day week became a problem only after it was a long-established instructional practice that contributed to the charter school's number-one academic standing in the City of Indio.
The Indio Charter School plans on appealing the ruling. Meanwhile, Riverside County has announced plans to audit the Indio Charter School's financial and attendance records back to 1999, despite never having audited the numerous failing schools in Riverside County.
More recently, virtual charter schools in California have also run up against this attendance regulation. The point of a virtual school is that students and their parents have the flexibility to organize their school hours. Students enrolled in the California Virtual Academy, which uses Bill Bennett's K12 program, for example, must still record attendance and instructional minutes as if they were going to class 175 days, on a Monday-Friday schedule. So even when children complete lessons on Saturday or do two lessons in one day to compensate for a field trip, the official K12 record must reflect 175 school days, or the charter school will not get paid-regardless of how many instructional minutes the child completes.
In the case of K12's California charter schools and the Indio Charter School, these California attendance regulations defeat the spirit of the charter-school movement. The point of a charter-school contract is that school operators have the flexibility to try something different in exchange for accountability.
These regulations reveal the typical bureaucratic mindset of focusing on inputs rather than outputs. School administrators have little regard for academic achievement as long as schools follow the rules. The charter school movement reflects the first time in recent history that education-reform efforts focused entirely on performance, rather than inputs. The charter authorizer would specify what the performance goal should be, but not how the charter school organized its resources or school day to meet that performance goal.
The highest performing school in the city of Indio can stand in as a poster child for the nationwide struggle of the charter school movement against regulations these schools are supposedly liberated from.
Here's the link to the Newsweek article.
Look here to learn more about the Indio Charter School's high academic performance and innovative programming.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.