I was raised on a steady diet of watching Looney Tunes. Sitting inches away from the screen every Saturday morning, bathed in its blueish glow, I learned how to recognize the Wile E. Coyote-types who have become too common in the Ed Reform movement. Overconfidence in their own genius inevitably leads to the backfiring of the convoluted schemes they concoct.
After going all-in with a progressive strategy of courting Democrats by heavily regulating charter schools, we’ve seen Democrats completely unswayed by this courtship. The party’s standard-bearer, Joe Biden, recently declared, “If I’m president, Betsy Devos’ whole motion, from charter schools to this, are gone.” Despite this failure, Ed Reform keeps doubling down on its progressive, heavy regulation approach. As Robert Pondiscio cheekily observed, “What I learned today on Twitter: Joe Biden could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot a charter school and not lose any ed reform voters.”
If having the presumptive Democratic nominee threaten to shut-down charter schools was not enough, perhaps this study just published in Urban Education by Ian Kingsbury, Robert Maranto, and Nik Karns might have some effect. They examine whether higher levels of charter regulation differentially reduce the likelihood that Black and Latino applicants are granted charters. That is, increasing burdens to entry to operating a charter school may make it significantly harder for minorities to lead charter schools, just as greater licensure barriers disproportionately keep minorities out of various occupations, from medicine to hair-braiding.
Kingsbury and colleagues use the National Association for Charter School Authorizers’ (NACSA) rating of the charter approval process as a proxy for how heavily regulated it is. They then examine every charter application in eight states and New Orleans between 2010 and 2018 to see if higher regulatory burdens have a discriminatory effect. They do. In general, tougher charter regulation reduces the likelihood that Black and Latino charter applicants will have their proposals approved and be allowed to operate a charter school. This is true even controlling for the educational attainment and selectivity of higher education institution applicants attended. That is, minority charter applicants who are equally qualified on these observed dimensions are significantly less likely to be allowed to operate charter schools when the authorizing process is deemed by reformers to be tougher and “higher quality.”
As the researchers conclude:
Regulation imposes significant barriers to entry for standalone applicants, African Americans, and Latinos aspiring to open charter schools. The former could be by design: CMOs and EMOs pose less risk of failure, at least as regards test scores. Yet generally, higher levels of regulation of authorization may pose costs regarding representation, and ultimately legitimacy (Meier & Rutherford, 2017; Morel, 2018; Pitkin, 1997). Given researching indicating the benefits of teacher-student and principal-student race-matching, this lack of representation may have additional educational costs (e.g., Crow & Scribner, 2014; Egalite, Kisida & Winters, 2015; Lomotey & Lowery, 2014). In short, as with other services, higher barriers to entry in the provision of charter education favor those with greater resources to negotiate those barriers, and those who resemble the regulators, with substantial and likely unintended costs.
It should also be emphasized that there is no evidence that raising the barriers to entry for charter operators improves their quality for students. Ed Reformers thought that pushing the “best practices” favored by NACSA would lead to better outcomes while reducing political risk with charter opponents. Instead, charter authorizing processes favored by NACSA make no difference for educational outcomes and harm political support by excluding minority community leaders from operating charter schools. This reform strategy feels like a contraption Wile E. Coyote could have built.