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ECS Paper: Charters Can Help Meet ‘No Child’ Demands

By Caroline Hendrie — September 21, 2004 3 min read
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States worried about complying with the No Child Left Behind Act should consider increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools and mapping out plans for converting failing schools to charter status, argue a pair of policy papers scheduled for release this week by the Education Commission of the States.

Although the 2½-year-old federal law holds school districts responsible for allowing children to transfer from schools that are repeatedly rated as needing improvement, states can play an important role in seeing that the school choice provision is more than a hollow promise, says one of the papers.

The set of policy papers are available online from the Education Commission of the States.

Likewise, the companion paper says, states should explore the pros and cons of restructuring chronically failing schools by converting them to charter schools-one of five possible approaches that the federal law prescribes for schools that fail to meet performance benchmarks for five years running.

“Nclb’s choice and restructuring requirements pose significant challenges,” Ted Sanders, the president of the Denver-based ECS, said in a statement. “To ensure that parents have real choices and that chronically low-performing schools make the difficult changes that are necessary, states need to implement a variety of school reform strategies. A thoughtful, rigorous approach to chartering schools could be one part of states’ strategies.”

Relatively few schools are at the stage where, under the federal law, they are being forced to restructure. Their ranks, though, are likely to swell in the future. So now is the time for states to mull strategies for using the “close and reopen” approach to their advantage, consultant Todd M. Ziebarth argues in one of the papers.

At worst, converting a floundering school to charter status could result in little more than a new word on the school’s nameplate, warns Mr. Ziebarth, who was a policy analyst at ECS until last fall, when he joined a Denver consulting firm. At best, he says, it can open the door to “fundamental and lasting improvement.”

Creating a Climate

Setting up new processes for transforming low-performing schools to charter status is a key role for states, according to his paper, “Closing Low-Performing Schools and Reopening Them as Charter Schools: What Role Can and Should States Play?”

Those processes should be distinct from a state’s existing system for allowing regular public schools to switch, in part because those conversions usually require approval by a majority of the schools’ staff members. That can be a problem, the paper argues, if the personnel “are part of the problem at that particular school.”

Mr. Ziebarth’s paper says states should also weigh such approaches as requesting proposals or qualifications from potential school operators; providing additional resources to schools that have been closed and reopened; and carrying out the conversions themselves.

Without state leadership, Mr. Ziebarth contends, many districts will avoid taking the potentially costly, time-consuming, and politically controversial step of reopening a failing institution as a charter school.

“Our thinking is that if states don’t play a helpful role, especially given the skepticism that exists toward charter schools in some places-to put it nicely-districts probably won’t use this option,” he said in an interview last week.

Active Role Urged

While most states have laws allowing charter schools, few have taken a “proactive role in stimulating supply,” says the other new ECS paper, “Stimulating the Supply of New Choices for Families in Light of nclb: The Role of the State.” But with only a small percentage of eligible children exercising their transfer options under the No Child Left Behind Act-often because of a shortage of higher-rated schools-the paper urges states to consider taking a more active role.

“It’s time for states and districts to get more aggressive about creating new options,” said Bryan C. Hassel, a co-author of the paper and the president of a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consulting firm.

States can start by analyzing how many students are in low-performing schools and how much space exists in higher-rated ones, the paper co-written by Mr. Hassel says. They can then foster a favorable climate by designating new authorizers for charter schools, lifting caps on the number of charter schools, and contracting directly with outside entities to open new schools. Finally, they can work with authorizers “to identify and recruit potential school operators.”

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