While Georgia seeks ways to open more high-performing charter schools, other parts of the country are engaging in a different challenge: How to close under-performing ones.
The House passed a parent trigger bill that would have allowed parents in even top-rated schools to petition their school boards to convert their school to a charter school. (The bill stalled late last week in the state Senate but could be attached to another bill and come up again.) The recently resurrected Charter Schools Commission is beginning to consider applications for new charters.
Charter schools are public schools that operate under individualized contracts that award them more freedom and flexibility in exchange for a pledge of higher student achievement. To expand parental choice, many states, including Georgia, have been eager to open charters, but less diligent in closing them when the promised achievement doesn’t materialize.
In his study, “Improving Charter School Accountability: The Challenge of Closing Failing Schools,” David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute states, “Let me be clear: Failing charter schools are at much greater risk of closing than other failing public schools. Still, if we are to harness their true potential, many states need to heighten that risk.”
Studies show that charter school students are more likely to outperform peers in traditional public schools in places where there’s a commitment to close failing charter schools, such as New York City and Massachusetts.
In the fall, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers urged states to do a better job of both closing bad charter schools and opening better ones. In its own analysis, the association found that between 900 and 1,300 charter schools across the country are performing in the lowest 15 percent of schools within their state.
The association noted, “Charter schools are not the only solution in public education, but they shouldn’t be part of the problem.”
Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C, schools and founder of the national advocacy group StudentsFirst, counts herself as an ardent supporter of charter schools, a fact she reiterated in a recent interview while in Atlanta to visit the Legislature.
“Our theory of change at StudentsFirst is that there is no shortage of highly effective, innovative educators in this country. The problem is that teachers and kids and families are forced to operate in these insane bureaucracies that don’t make common sense to a whole lot of people. When you ask schools what would they change, they want more freedom.”
Charter schools offer that freedom, but Rhee said balance is key. “We believe in strong accountability. Otherwise, you end up like Ohio, Michigan and Washington, where, on average, charter schools don’t do better than traditional public schools,” she said. “If charter schools are poorly performing, shut them down very aggressively.”
“Aggressive charter school accountability is supposed to be part of the deal,” Rhee said, “but it is far from reality. The whole concept is giving schools increasing authority and autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. In many states, charter schools get the authority and autonomy and don’t get the accountability.
“I think it ought to be less about making public schools like charter schools,” she said. “If it is high-performing school, we shouldn’t care what sector it is from.”
Rhee is not the only pro-charter voice urging greater accountability for failing charters.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-school choice think tank, and Public Impact, a policy research and management consulting firm, reviewed uneven charter performance in five major cities and concluded, “To advance the quality of the charter school sectors in these cities, we strongly encourage policies that would close the lowest 10 percent of failing charters in each city, while supporting policies that would help the high-flyers in these municipalities expand their efforts. … We ought to celebrate the hard work of the top charters and look for ways to replicate their success. At the same time, failure to hold low-performing charters accountable robs students of educational opportunities and hurts the perception of the entire charter sector.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog