Charter School Authorizers Grapple With Closures

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When the results of a yearlong investigation by the state of Indiana confirmed widespread cheating at an Indianapolis charter school, the mayor's office, which oversees a majority of charters in the city, took the drastic step of closing the school just weeks into the academic year. But the office went several steps further—holding enrollment fairs and buying new school uniforms—to help students transition to new schools.

The charter sector has long stood by the premise that if the independently run public schools fail to perform, they are shut down—an idea often referred to as the "charter bargain." But as the movement matures, it increasingly faces the messy reality of closing schools—a situation that could become more common.

Although there are many examples of failing charters closing abruptly, blindsiding parents and sending them scrambling to find new schools, the city of Indianapolis is among several charter authorizers that have been pioneering new best practices in school closure.

Charter School Shutdowns

Most charters close when authorizers decide not to renew their contracts; fewer schools get shut down while still in their contract term.

"A lot of people in the school choice movement like the idea of accountability, but when accountability hits home, it's really hard to maintain your focus on results," said Brandon S. Brown, the director of charter schools for the Indianapolis mayor's office. "It's the authorizer's responsibility to hold an absolute bar for performance, which means that, sometimes, low-performing schools will not continue to operate."

Managing Transitions

Although closure rates for charter schools nationally have fluctuated over the past five years, according to survey data collected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the number has stabilized, and NACSA doesn't expect it to go down. If anything, the organization said in a 2013 report, closures may rise because of growing pressure on authorizers to close underperforming schools, and the effect of state laws that do so automatically.

For the most part, charters are closed when authorizers choose to not renew their contracts at the end of the term limit, most often because of poor academic performance and financial reasons. More than 15.7 percent of charter school contracts were up for renewal during the 2012-13 school year, and of those, 11.6 percent were denied. For charters outside their renewal period, the closure rate was 1.9 percent in that school year, according to NACSA.

Whatever the justification for closure, the decision to shut a school down is perhaps the easy part; execution is a different story. Closing a school is disruptive and emotional for students, teachers, and parents, but, experts say, there are ways to soften the impact by having a plan in place and meticulously managing student transitions.

When the Indianapolis mayor's office decided to close Flanner House Elementary School over a cheating scandal, it assigned charter-office employees to communicate with parents on a biweekly basis.

"We had a tracker that listed when we called families, the nature of that communication, next steps that we agreed to, and then we worked with those families to meet their needs," which included buying school supplies and new uniforms, Mr. Brown said.

The mayor's office also hosted two enrollment fairs where parents could talk with leaders from nearly 30 schools and could enroll their children on the spot.

"What we saw is that we had a lot of angry families at first that, over time, came to really value the support we gave them, to the point that we had multiple families call our office and say, 'We are so thankful that you made this decision,' " said Mr. Brown. "We didn't feel like it was appropriate to close a school and then make the families unilaterally navigate a complex choice system."

As an authorizer, he noted, the Indianapolis mayor's office has a unique relationship with the families in the schools it oversees: They can help vote the mayor out of a job, come election time.

Flanner House was a special circumstance; generally, the mayor's office makes contract-renewal decisions for the following school year early in the second semester of the current year. That time frame allows schools whose charters aren't renewed time to wind down their operations and gives families time to make new arrangements for their children. But the timing doesn't allow such schools to languish in limbo for too long.

'Zombie Year'

In Ohio, when the time between the announcement of a charter closing and the actual shutdown stretches the full academic year, it is referred to as a "zombie year." Teachers and administrators learn as early as September that their school—as well as their jobs—will cease to exist come May or June. That situation is generally a product of Ohio's closure law, which mandates the automatic shutdown of the state's poorest-performing charter schools, as well as the timing for when student-assessment data gets released.

When announced that many months in advance, authorizers say, there's a risk that school personnel won't remain invested for an entire academic year. That's an issue even under shorter closure timelines.

"We did get to a point where we did have to be there [at the school] almost every day, because we would have teachers go to lunch and not come back," said Kathryn Mullen Upton, the vice president for sponsorship at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Dayton that began authorizing charter schools in Ohio in the mid-2000s. "That was a big lesson."

To avoid that, the Fordham Foundation, like the city of Indianapolis, prefers to make closure announcements in the spring, even though it's not always ideal, particularly because they occur after the deadline for parents to apply for private school vouchers.

Whether or not an authorizer is faced with a closure in a given year, Ms. Mullen Upton recommends having prescribed steps to follow that include templated letters, talking points, and answers to frequently asked questions for parents.

A plan for storing and maintaining student records is also crucial, according to DeAnna L. Rowe, the executive director of Arizona's state board for charter schools.

"When a school is going to close, one of the things that you talk about is who is going to be the custodian of those records," which can be the home school district, another charter school, or, in Arizona's case, the state charter board, Ms. Rowe said. "The worst-case scenario is when the school disappears, the building is not even there anymore or it's not functioning as a school, and a student is trying to find those records."

The Receiving End

But regardless of how smoothly charter students make the transition to new schools, the influx affects campuses on the receiving end, which are often regular district schools.

The effect can be especially acute in Florida, where a constitutional amendment caps district class sizes. The arrival of a few extra students can mean a school has to hire additional staff.

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"Depending on the timing of the closing, if those students are returning after the numbers [for per-pupil funding] are sent back to the state in October, we can have a large influx of students coming in without the funding that's supposed to come with them," said Stephen R. Frazier, the principal at Silver Trail Middle School in Pembroke Pines, Fla. "That can really be challenging for a principal when you're left having to hire more teachers and buy materials."

Some authorizers are trying to address that issue by recruiting new charter operators to open shop in the same facility as a recently or soon-to-be shuttered school.

But that approach, like templated letters and special enrollment fairs, is just an example of how to deal with a worst-case-scenario. The better strategy, experienced authorizers say, is adhering to solid vetting practices during the charter-application process.

"It really starts on the front end," said Ms. Mullen Upton. "It's much easier to say no on the front end than it is to close it down on the back end."

Vol. 34, Issue 11, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: November 5, 2014, as Charter Sector Is Confronting School Closures
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