The Potemkin Village Cap Lift: What Would the Reviewers Say?

It’s interesting to me that you have folks out there that don’t quite believe that we’re going to keep a high barÖ. It’s going to be a very, very high bar. People won’t believe it until we do it.
–Secretary Arne Duncan discussing the Race to the Top

”Don’t quite believe” is right. Albany still seems to think there is a way to hurt the state’s charter schools and get rewarded for it in the Race to the Top (RTTT). The latest destructive idea is to lift the state’s nominal cap on charter schools, then choke charter school growth by turning new school creation into a centralized RFP process.

As the Post and Daily News point out in must-read editorials this morning, that kind of fakery won’t fool anyone.

Both papers are exactly right about the raw politics: at the end of the day, there’s just no way the feds will reward a state that eliminates SUNY CSI, one of their favorite authorizersólet alone a state that starts doling out charters through politicized central planning. As Duncan said last month, “In the end, I want state lawmakers to lead reform, not lag it.”

But charter school defenders don’t have to rely on any kind of backroom override. The RTTT scoring process itself would penalize these changes (guidelines here as .doc, see pp. 87-88). Consider:

1. Dropping the charter school cap would win high pointsóexcept if a state has other restrictions that are “even mildly inhibiting.” That’s an easy one; the question is whether reviewers would consider the new inhibitions “severe” or “moderate.”

2. Reviewers will weigh evidence of each state’s past success in charter school authorizing. What happens when the state has dismantled the system responsible for that success? Nothing good.

There is also a real question about whether the proposal would lead to “charter schools” at all, since that concept usually includes some element of responsiveness to demand and/or entrepreneurial energy. If new charters are to be doled out like highway contracts, the reviewers may decide to score New York under the provision for “other innovative schools”óagain, not a recipe for high points.

One way or another, these damaging ideas would sink New York’s application. We don’t have to read the political tea leaves, just the rules of the Race.†