Ziebarth Defends the Pageant

Miss Indiana crowned as Miss America

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Todd Ziebarth from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has responded to criticism from yours truly, Max Eden and others regarding the soundness of judging charter school laws based on adherence to a model bill, rather than by their results. I encourage you to read Todd’s response.

Ziebarth in essence claims that facts on the ground in the last five laws passed rather than flaws in the laws themselves have dampened the impact of otherwise good laws. I have no reason to doubt that differences in circumstances from state to state will influence speed out of the gate. I however do not share Ziebarth’s preference for ranking charter laws by their adherence to a model bill when it is possible to judge them by their results, like the Brookings Institute did in this map:

This map measures the percentage of students by state who have access to a charter school in their zip code. It’s not a perfect measure- after all some zip codes have multiple charter schools. Perhaps the measure could be improved upon. When however you see states with near zero percentages on this map near the top of a ranking list, something seems out of sorts with the rankings. Yes circumstances can influence how well you come out of the gate, five new laws in a row failing to produce many schools isn’t a fluke, it looks more like a pattern.

Ziebarth notes that if we don’t include the recent charter bills that have yet to produce many charters, then you get a list like (each state listed along with the % of charter students). This revised list however remains problematic.

1 Indiana 4%
2 Colorado 13%
3 Minnesota 6%
4 District of Columbia 46%
5 Florida 10%
6 Nevada 8%
7 Louisiana 11%
8 Massachusetts 4%
9 New York 5%
10 Arizona 17%

Ok, so the top rated law (Indiana) only produced charter schools within the zip codes of 19.5% of Indiana students, and enrolls 4% of the student population. The law has been in operation for a long time, but you as yet cannot even get a NAEP score for their schools because of the wee-tiny size of the population. If one is a utilitarian sort, any set of criteria that ranks Indiana as having the top charter school law seems in need of revision.

Minnesota has the oldest of all charter school laws, but only six percent of the kids, and 37.7% of kids having access to a charter in their zip code for a law that passed in 1991. There is a word for that: contained. Minnesota gets a ton of credit for inventing charter schools, but their law doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot to provide families with opportunities, or producing competitive pressure to shake things up.

DC meanwhile has 46% of total kids and 87% of kids have access to a charter school in their zip code. It’s also easy to find evidence of academic success for DC charters. Judging by results, this certainly looks like a much better charter law than Indiana or Minnesota. Ironically, the main reason NAPCS dings the DC charter law in their scoring metric is for a lack of equitable funding. DC charters however seem to be funded at a high enough level to capture 46% of the market, to provide access to 87% of kids, and to produce better results than DCPS. They also receive more generous funding per pupil than most (all?) states. There is no contest between DC and either Indiana or Minnesota in terms of outcomes in my book.

Ok I could go on but I think the horse is dead. We’ve reached the point where it is possible to judge charter sectors by outcomes, rather than by a model bill beauty pageant criteria.

In the end charter school laws either produce seats or they don’t. Laws that fail to produce seats are failures. Laws that produce only a few seats are disappointments. Philanthropists should carefully reexamine their grant metrics to guard against the possibility that they have created a powerful incentive for groups to seek the passage of charter laws regardless of whether they ever produce many charter seats. I haven’t seen grant agreements, but I have watched as the last five laws failed to produce many schools. We are supposed to be creating meaningful opportunity for kids rather than merely colored maps.

10 Responses to Ziebarth Defends the Pageant

  1. Thanks for promoting this discussion. The zip code approach is flawed, at least in Minnesota, because students can and do move across district and zip code lines to attend charters. There are literally thousands of youngsters who do this. Moving across district lines to attend a charter is permitted in some but not all states.

    The charter law has stimulated a lot of change in Minnesota, which is one of the reasons that only 6% of the students attend charters here. A number of districts have created new options in response to the fact that thousands of youngsters are attending charters. New language immersion, Montessori and “second chance” schools have been created in response to the fact that charters have been created.

    One of the strengths of the Mn law is that charters are permitted (and are operating) in rural and suburban, as well as urban areas. Another strength of our law is that literally millions of dollars have been allocated in a separate fund to help charters pay building costs. This means many charters are in much better facilities than they are in other states, where charters must take building costs from per pupil dollars.

    We have some strong provisions prohibiting conflict of interests on boards and requiring financial transparency, which has meant in the last 5 years we’ve avoided some of the headlines about financial ripoffs that have happened in some states.

    Unquestionably Mn’s law is not perfect. But it has helped create a variety of innovative, distinctive schools throughout the state and help many youngsters with whom traditional schools are not succeeding. The law also has helped push traditional districts to be more responsive to families and in some places, to create new district options.

  2. One other point. I completely agree that a law should not be highly rated in it has produced few if any schools. The National Alliance has heard from me on this point a number of times in the last 5 years.

  3. matthewladner says:


    I’m not arguing that the MN is bad but rather that by my way of thinking that it is impossible to say that it is better than the DC law. I agree that kids do cross zip codes, meaning that the Brookings measure is rough, but it is also measuring something important. Most kids do attend nearby schools for very practical reasons, so having a large majority of your kids without a charter school in their zip code is telling us something about access imo.

    • Matthew, I think we need a variety of criteria to measure charter laws. Also, DC and a state like Mn are quite different Yes, it helps to have a school close to your house.

      That’s one of a number of metrics I’ve suggested using. Other includes whether the law provides equal per pupil funding; whether there is funding to help pay for buildings that charters approve; whether there are explicit transparency and conflict of interest provisions, whether a variety of schools have been created, etc, etc.

      • Greg Forster says:

        DC and a state like Mn are quite different

        So funny to see this used to defend Minnesota against being held to an objective standard when we constantly hear it used by the DC blob to defend DC public schools against being held to an objective standard. “No one can judge me because I’m unique” is an egalitarian game in the sense that literally anyone can play; too bad the results are never egalitarian, because removing standards of judgment leaves us with nothing but a contest of power.

      • I’m fine with objective standards. I think there should be a number of them – not just what percentage of zip codes have charters located in them.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    That hilarious Miss Universe chart is actually a good representation of the NAPCS approach.

    “The law is divine, needs only an actual charter school.”

  5. matthewladner says:

    I’d prefer to keep the focus on outcomes. I’m for instance convinced that DC has the best law because they have strong accessibility and performance vis a vis the District. It doesn’t much bother me that they are accomplishing this with less than the bloated DCPS figure.

  6. pdexiii says:

    This smells like another Jay Matthews bet: if, say, by the end of the first Trump term these percentages haven’t changed, you win.
    I’m still trying to understand how having quality charter laws is more important than successful charter schools.

    • Greg Forster says:

      But the Feds don’t and can’t and shouldn’t control state charter policy.

      A Mathews bet in an individual state, however…

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