School & District Management

Debate Grows Around Charter School Closure

By Sean Cavanagh — August 17, 2012 9 min read
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One of the most vexing questions about charter schools—when low-performing ones should be shut down—is receiving new attention, amid concerns that lax and inconsistent standards for closing them will undermine the public’s confidence in the sector.

Over the past few years, a growing number of researchers, policymakers, and charter school backers have called for removing obstacles to closing academically struggling schools, though many barriers remain.

Numerous states have approved laws in recent years that have raised or clarified standards for charter school performance, while also establishing policies to make it easier for charters to open and secure facilities and public funding.

Even so, state and local policies vary greatly in their expectations for charter schools, and in the standards they set for authorizers—the state, local, or independent entities typically charged with approving charters and overseeing their performance.

According to a report released this year, the nationwide rate of closure of charters schools up for renewal has actually fallen over the past three years, which could be interpreted as a sign of improved quality, weaker oversight, or some combination of both. Another recent estimate shows that the percentage of charters in different states that have shut their doors varies widely—from zero to 5 percent in some states to well over 20 percent in others.

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Read related story: “California Charter Group Gets Tough on Charters”

Debates about the standards for closing struggling charters are nothing new, either in the context of broader policy discussions or in communities weighing the performance of individual schools. But the issue has received more intense focus lately from pro-charter groups that say they want to ensure that the sector, which has grown fairly steadily for two decades, is held to high standards.

‘Heart’ of the Bargain

Those concerns underscore the fundamental promises of the charter school movement, and the tensions within it, observed Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in Washington. Charters were designed to operate with more autonomy than regular public schools—though advocates like Mr. Ziebarth say state and local policies often stifle that independence—while also facing higher degrees of accountability, he said.

Decisions about closure “go to the very heart of public charter schools,” Mr. Ziebarth said. Today, supporters of the schools “are asking tough questions about both sides of the charter bargain.”

Others point out that many low-performing charters do, in fact, close, and warn against state and local officials setting overly rigid standards for judging performance without considering the challenges individual schools face.

“Trying to create one-size-fits-all formulas—that flies in the face of what charter schools should be,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington organization that supports such schools. Authorizers need to be held to high standards for judging charters, she said, but also “actively understand the context of each school.”

Debates about charter quality notwithstanding, research suggests that academically struggling charters do not get a free pass.

A larger percentage of low-performing charters close—19 percent—than do similarly struggling public schools—11 percent—according to a 2010 study conducted by David A. Stuit, a partner at Basis Policy Research, an independent research organization in Raleigh, N.C., for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports charters. That study focused on 10 states, which have about 70 percent of the country’s charters.

Who Authorizes Charter Schools?

The nation’s charter schools are overseen by a variety of authorizers. The vast majority of them—more than 90 percent—are individual school districts:

859 local education agencies
46 higher education institutions
20 nonprofit organizations
20 state education agencies
10 independent chartering boards
2 mayors/municipalities

957 total

SOURCE: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

Nationwide, 15 percent of the 6,700 charter schools that have opened over the past two decades have shut their doors for one reason or another, according to the Center for Education Reform. The largest proportion of those closures, nearly 42 percent, were the result of financial woes, usually related to low enrollment or lack of funding, the CER concluded. Twenty-four percent closed for reasons of mismanagement, and a smaller share, 19 percent, were shut down for academic reasons.

At the same time, overall closure rates for charters whose contracts were up for renewal declined from 12.6 percent in 2008 to 6.2 percent two years later, the most recent year tallied, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago organization that seeks to improve charter school quality. NACSA officials say they can’t be certain whether improved school performance, changes in the practices of authorizers, political pressure to keep charters open, or other factors were behind the decline.

Role of Authorizers

The vast majority of charter authorizers in the United States, about 90 percent, are school districts, with universities, independent chartering boards, nonprofit organizations, and state agencies making up most of the rest.

Many charter supporters have joined NACSA in describing authorizers’ work as critical to ensuring that sound charter schools prosper and underperformers are weeded out. That theme was sounded in a report by David Osborne, a consultant and former adviser to the Clinton administration, published earlier this year by the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. (The report was supported by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for coverage of parent-empowerment issues in Education Week.)

Mr. Osborne identified several factors as standing in the way of authorizers’ ability to close low-achieving charters. Authorizers often lack the funding and staff to monitor charter performance closely and they collect little data on those schools. Some authorizers receive funding from charters, he noted, so they have an incentive to keep them open. Authorizers also have no clear criteria for renewing or revoking charters, and their decisions about closing schools can, in some cases, be overruled by state officials or courts.

In addition, authorizers recognize that shutting down a charter school may force students to choose from academically struggling or otherwise unsound schools, Mr. Osborne said. Other barriers are political: Authorizers, particularly local school boards, can face enormous pressure from the community not to close schools, even academically struggling ones, he added.

State laws vary greatly in the extent to which they spell out authorizers’ responsibilities for overseeing charters, Mr. Ziebarth said. In recent years, a growing number of states have increased requirements on authorizers to monitor charter schools and set specific academic targets for them. But many states have not done so, and their policies tend to be “all over the map,” he noted.

NACSA officials say the vagaries of state policy were evident in results of a recent survey of state charter school laws conducted by the organization. Of 41 states that allow charters, roughly two-thirds of their laws have language saying that charters’ contracts must be renewed if they have made or are making reasonable progress toward meeting performance standards, according to NACSA.

“When they say, ‘Make reasonable progress’—what is that?” said Greg Richmond, NACSA’S president and chief executive officer. “It’s undefined and subjective.”

Disparate State Rates

Those differences in state policy may help explain the variation in closure rates among individual states.

In California, home to the largest number of charters in the country, nearly 17 percent of the charters that ever opened have closed, according to data collected through the 2010-11 school year by the Center for Education Reform. In another charter-rich state, Florida, the proportion is 20 percent. In the District of Columbia, where charters serve more than 40 percent of the city’s overall public school population of roughly 79,000 students, that share is 22 percent, the CER says.

In other states, however, far fewer charters have closed. In Utah, for instance, 1 percent of the 87 charter schools ever opened have shut down, the CER found.

One possible explanation for Utah’s low rate is that the state does not subject charters to mandatory, high-stakes review after a certain period—say, five or 10 years; instead, its charters automatically renew. (NACSA recommends that charter schools undergo contract-renewal reviews every five years.)

Marlies Burns, the state director of charter schools in Utah, said about 8 percent of charters that opened are no longer operating—with many having closed or folded into other schools. While there are no mandatory, scheduled “high stakes” reviews of charters, state oversight was strengthened two years ago, and today, Utah’s state charter school board—the state’s primary authorizer—conducts annual reviews of all charters’ academic performance, finances, and structure, she said.

Another question surrounding charter school closure is what kinds of authorizers are best equipped to provide strong oversight of those schools. The Center for Education Reform favors having states allow multiple authorizers that are independent of state and local agencies, which the organization says tend to be overburdened with other tasks unrelated to charter schools. Like many pro-charter organizations, the center also says some district authorizers may be reluctant to treat charters fairly, fearing that they will siphon students and funding from regular public schools.

But Mr. Richmond says giving too many different entities authorizing power has drawbacks—such as that it allows low-performing charters to cherry-pick authorizers likely to provide lax oversight. NACSA instead favors allowing districts to serve as authorizers—reasoning that some of them do that job well—in addition to granting that authority to competent statewide entities.

Targeting Root Causes

In California and Florida, dozens of individual districts serve as authorizers, in some cases overseeing only a handful of charters. But many of those districts lack the time, resources, and expertise to monitor charters’ performance, Mr. Osborne says, and they often lack clear policies on when to close underperforming schools.

Charter school advocates who disagree on who should authorize them, and how they should be regulated tend to agree on one point: Many debates about closure could be avoided if states and authorizers set tougher standards for founding new charters.

Low-performing charters are largely the result of weak laws and substandard authorizers making poor decisions about “whether or not these schools should have opened to begin with.”, said Ms. Allen of the Center for Education Reform.

Mr. Osborne agrees. “The good authorizers are very careful about who gets to create a charter school,” he said. While states are generally “moving in the right direction,” in setting clear standards for opening and closing charters, he argued, “we need more states to get the authorizing right.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Debate Revs Up Around Closing Low-Achieving Charter Schools

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