AN ESTIMATED 365,000 students are on waiting lists to get into charter schools. More than half of all charter schools across the country report having to disappoint parents who want their children in better schools. Yet many states, for reasons that have nothing to do with sound educational policy, discourage or even forbid the growth of charters. It's a ridiculous situation, and we hope that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is serious about not rewarding states hostile to charter schools.
Mr. Duncan recently put states on notice that they risk their shot at millions of dollars in federal stimulus money if they are not open to public charter schools. As a former head of Chicago's public schools, Mr. Duncan knows firsthand the benefits of charters. Freed from the constraints of union contracts and one-size-fits-all school policy, they've been able to innovate successful new approaches to learning. They give parents an important choice about where their children go to school and, in many cases, are the best bet for a decent education.
Nonetheless, 10 states are without laws allowing public charter schools, and 26 place artificial caps on the number of schools. Then there are states such as Virginia and Maryland, which ostensibly allow charters but have procedures so biased against charters that they have not been able to take hold. Consider that there are 34 charter schools in Maryland and just four in all of Virginia. A new report by the Center for Education Reform provides important insights into the factors that are key to the growth of successful charter schools, notably independent authorizers and fiscal equity. Interestingly, the District emerges with the strongest policy, followed by California and Minnesota.
We're encouraged by Mr. Duncan's use of his office as a bully pulpit. He didn't shrink from singling out states he thinks have the worst records; already his remarks have influenced debate as legislatures in Tennessee and Maine grappled with the issue. Still, it remains to be seen how far Mr. Duncan will go in making charters and other needed education reforms a requirement for grants from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. Regulations are still being drafted, and every member of Congress is sure to want a piece of the pie for his or her constituents. Mr. Duncan should stick to his lesson plan.