Ask James N. Goenner the hardest part of closing down a charter school, and he doesn’t hesitate for a moment.
“One of my toughest days on the job,” he said, “was when I had a 5- or 6-year-old girl ask me, ‘Mr. Goenner, why are you taking away our school?’ ”
As the executive director of the charter school office of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich., Mr. Goenner has been through the ordeal of shuttering a school more times than he wants to recall. Now he is among a growing cadre of charter school authorizers who are giving hard thought to how to manage a process that can be painful and messy for all concerned.
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With the nation’s charter sector now encompassing some 3,200 schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, shutdowns have become more common occurrences in the past few years. An estimated one in every 10 charter schools has now closed its doors, up from only about 4 percent four years ago.
Most authorizers who take their responsibilities seriously agree that weeding out bad schools is a vital component of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter school concept. But amid the sparks thrown off by closings, those authorizers are often ending up singed.
As shutdowns grab headlines—particularly when schools collapse in midyear, stranding students, families, and staff—their authorizers may come under fire for how they’ve handled the process. Even orderly, planned closures have sparked fierce political battles that have sometimes led authorizers to give struggling schools another chance. Publicized failures have spurred states to implement new rules aimed at tightening oversight, sometimes to the anguish of freedom-loving charter operators and their authorizers.
As a result, leaders among the authorizers that grant the publicly financed but independent schools their contracts to operate—including states, school districts, universities, and others—are getting serious about sharing their experiences and finding better ways to pull the plug.
“It’s easy to talk about the theo-ry of closing down schools, but it’s much more difficult to really close a school,” Mr. Goenner said. “And until you’ve done it once, you really can’t understand the ramifications.”
As they struggle to develop policies and protocols to shut weak charter schools, authorizers are grappling with issues that may increasingly apply to regular public schools as they fall under sanctions for subpar performance imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
At the same time, charter closings pose some unique challenges to those who want to see the sector succeed. The very process that charter advocates can point to as “accountability in action” can help opponents paint grim pictures of charter schooling. Revocation or nonrenewal of a school’s charter to operate can undermine support among parents and the public, who may see closed schools as a failure of the whole chartering idea. Closures may not go over big with policymakers, either.
“There’s definitely a Catch-22 at play here,” said Mark Cannon, the executive director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, based in Alexandria, Va.
Hundreds of charter schools have now folded, usually after being open just a few years, or even a few months.
According to the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization based in Washington, approximately 350 such schools had gone belly up as of the end of the 2003-04 school year, for a closure rate of nearly 10 percent of all the charter schools that had opened since the first charter was awarded in Minnesota in 1992.
That contrasts with a closure rate of 4 percent listed in the center’s 2001 report, when just 86 of the 2,150 charter schools that had opened by that point were known to have shut down.
The center is still confirming and analyzing the reasons for last school year’s closures for a report expected in the coming months. In the past, though, the center has found that closures have been triggered principally by factors other than academic performance—such as fiscal difficulties, mismanagement, low enrollment, or facilities problems.
Some charter school critics say that pattern needs to change. Joan A. Devlin, an associate director in the educational issues department of the American Federation of Teachers, said authorizers need to close more schools for poor academic performance, and then be upfront about their reasons, instead of citing various operational deficiencies.
“They need to be more honest about it,” she said. “That was part of the bargain: ‘We’ll give you this autonomy, and in turn you’ll raise student achievement.’ ”
Whatever their reasons for shutting a school, authorizers are finding that the process can become drawn-out and disruptive. Especially for those authorizers aiming to strengthen the charter sector—in contrast to those who devote scant resources to the job—getting their act together on closures has become a major topic of debate.
Processes for dissolving unsuccessful schools are not usually what authorizers focus on in their early years, when they are still figuring out how to handle applications for new schools, noted Nelson Smith, the president of the Charter School Leadership Council, based in Washington.
But as authorizers have been around for a while, and as the charters they have granted come up for renewal, they are finding a need to make up for lost ground, he said.
“Honestly, there’s a lot of catch-up to be done, and I’m speaking as a former authorizer,” said Mr. Smith, who was the first director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, which was formed in 1996 to focus on chartering schools in the nation’s capital.
Interest in the closure issue was evident in Philadelphia last October at the national conference of Mr. Cannon’s group, NACSA, where sessions on ending unsuccessful schools were well attended.
“There are two things that can be damaging to the charter school movement: keeping open bad schools and mucking up closures,”Martin S. Dezelan, the director of the office of charter schools at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., said at one such session. “Both are communications nightmares.”
When faced with shutting a fledgling Indiana school for poor performance last year, Mr. Dezelan turned to Mr. Goenner’s staff at Central Michigan University.
The CMU staff provided him with a “wind-up and dissolution checklist,” a six-page document outlining the tasks involved in terminating a school. Seven of the 87 schools that Central Michigan has chartered over the past 10 years have folded, and the checklist was drawn up to handle those situations.
Need for ‘Triage’
That sort of sharing is becoming more common. According to Mr. Cannon, authorizers are learning that they need to expect the worst and assume that an operator who has done a poor job of running a school will come up equally short in shutting it down. And sometimes, experience has shown that disgruntled operators go out of their way to “exit in the worst way possible,” he said.
“The authorizer really has to develop a triage team that swoops in quickly before an unscrupulous operator is able to do damage,” he said. “The big issues are protecting the kids and the money.”
An example of a particularly unfortunate exit came just last summer, Mr. Cannon said, with the meltdown of a chain of charter schools run by the California Charter Academy. The Victorville, Calif.-based organization ran roughly 60 sites under four charters that were serving more than 12,000 students as of last June, according to the California Department of Education.
Academy officials decided to abruptly fold amid an investigation by the state education department into alleged wrongdoing, which the academy denied. The closings left thousands of students in the lurch shortly before the start of a new school year. And while other charter schools absorbed many of them, the episode was still hugely disruptive. (“Calif. Charter Failure Affects 10,000 Students,” Sept. 1, 2004.)
Another high-profile closing last year was of the 450-student John A. Reisenbach Charter School in New York City. The school was among the first three schools authorized by the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute to come up for review of their five-year charters.
Over bitter protests from parents, the university’s board of trustees decided against renewing the Reisenbach school’s charter last February. The decision was backed by an extensive report by the institute’s staff recommending closure for academic, fiscal, and other deficiencies.
Parents complained that they lacked better options for their children, a factor that SUNY officials say made their decision harder. And as the summer shutdown date approached, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein of New York City and City Councilwoman Eva S. Moskowitz were among those who urged the board to reconsider. But the university stuck to its guns.
This year, the SUNY institute has 13 more schools up for renewal, and lessons learned last year have prompted some changes. Last summer, the institute gave the boards of the schools a heads-up that nonrenewal was an option. And in response to complaints from Reisenbach parents that they had learned too late that the school was in trouble, the institute’s executive director, James D. Merriman, met personally with parents from each of the five schools this past fall and explained the situation.
During those meetings, Mr. Merriman said, “I was struck by the low level of knowledge about the charter concept itself.” So he has decided to produce and distribute a primer on chartering to the parents of all SUNY-authorized schools, which will include warnings about the risks of closure for poor academic performance.
Even with such information, parents are unlikely to be happy about the idea, Mr. Goenner of Central Michigan University said.
“When you preach the accountability message—if they don’t perform, we’ll shut them down—it’s a complete red flag to parents,” he said. “Parents of the kids say, ‘If the school’s not performing, change the leadership, don’t put my child on the street.’ ”
In the long run, many charter experts say that the best way to cut down on closures is to screen charter applicants better and continuously monitor schools’ progress. For that to happen, they say, authorizers need the will and resources to perform their roles effectively.
At the moment, though, as charter leaders pursue the twin goals of expanding the number of charter schools and upgrading their quality, few see the need for closings disappearing anytime soon.
“The toughest part of this,” Mr. Smith of the Charter School Leadership Council said, “is to get parents and other people to accept that sometimes closing a school is a healthy thing.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Charter Authorizers Eye Rules on Closings