School Choice & Charters Opinion

Good Authorizers Close Bad Charter Schools

By Sara Mead — February 21, 2012 2 min read
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Charter authorizing is not, sad to say, on the glamour side of the education reform movement, so I was psyched to see this New York Times editorial highlighting the importance of authorizing and calling out D.C.'s own Public Charter School Board (on which I serve) as an example of strong authorizing policies.

I’d quibble a bit with some of the Times’ characterization of charter school performance--on net the highest-quality studies suggest that charter elementary and middle schools outperform their traditional public school peers. Nor is it clear that a recent decline in charter school closures means that authorizers are not doing their jobs: In fact, it may reflect that some major authorizers have gotten better in recent years, and have already closed the lowest-performers in their portfolios or raised authorizing standards to prevent weak schools from opening in the first place.

But there’s no quibbling with the fact that far too many charter schools are not performing anywhere near as well as they need to be, and that some authorizers have failed to do their duty in closing low-performing charters. The reasons for this are many: It’s easy to call out authorizers who allow weak schools to stay open as lax or lacking in political will--and indeed, these are too often reasons that weak schools stay open. But state laws and court interpretations also create barriers to charter school closure in some states (the worst thing an authorizer can do is to close a school and then have the closure struck down in court--which can damage the authorizers’ ability to close down other schools in the future). Capacity is also a big challenge. When I worked with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers last year to document the practices of high-performing authorizers, one lesson that came back over and over was that an authorizer’s ability to close schools is greatly improved when it has BOTH 1) very clearly defined standards for school performance and the performance levels or other factors that can trigger charter revocation or nonrenewal, and 2) the capacity to effectively monitor its schools, document poor performance, and communicate clearly about expectations and schools’ failure to meet them. Unfortunately, many authorizers lack one or both of these things.

Authorizer capacity is a major challenge for the charter school movement--we know that authorizers are critical to school quality, but the vast majority of them are local school districts that don’t see authorizing as central to their mission and oversee only one or two schools--hardly a recipe for quality oversight. And even many independent, state, or larger district authorizers that do see authorizing as central to their mission suffer from lack of resources and frequent staff turnover--human capital is a major challenge for the authorizing field. I’m fortunate to work with an authorizer, PCSB, that has resources to do a quality job and an excellent staff. But that’s sadly not often the norm in the field and until we take seriously the critical role authorizers play, we shouldn’t be surprised if quality problems continue.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.