School Choice & Charters

Recommendations Offered for Charter School Oversight

By Sean Cavanagh — June 26, 2012 4 min read
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Today, the chances that a poor-performing or operationally inept charter school will be closed tend to vary greatly from state to state and district to district. A new paper makes the case that state and local officials need to craft tougher policies that ensure that bad ones get shut down. And it offers advice to state and local officials on how they can do it.

The paper’s author, David Osborne, is a supporter of charter schools, but he nonetheless shares the views of some who argue that closing failing schools within the sector ultimately protects others belonging to it from being discredited—and protects taxpayers who fund those schools. Doing so also leads to overall school improvement, he says, and raises the standards for both charters and traditional public schools.

Osborne’s paper was published by the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate-to-left-leaning Washington think tank. Osborne is the author of a number of books on transforming and streamlining government, who served in 1993 as a senior adviser to then-Vice President Al Gore. He spoke on a panel at the National Press Club on Tuesday about his paper, and responded to questions and critiques afterward.

There are a lot of obstacles to closing charter schools, Osborne argued, many of which stem from the role played by authorizers—typically state, local, or other entities charged with approving and overseeing schools. Depending on the state or locality where they operate, authorizers may not collect enough information on school performance; they may lack staff and funding to review charters; they may not set clear performance goals for charters; and they fear that closing charter schools will result in children getting sent to other charters or traditional publics that are even worse.

“In a lot of states, authorizers are falling down,” Osborne said at the event. Policymakers need to look beyond school accountability, he said, to “authorizer accountability.”

Additionally, authorizers have financial incentives not to close charters—such as the fact that they often rely on receiving a percentage of the per-pupil funds that go to those schools. And looming over charter closures is the political pressure that can come from shutting them down—from parents, the commmunity, charter advocates, among others, he notes.

Osborne puts forward a number of recommedations for how policymakers can ensure that they close low-performing charters (without shuttering the wrong ones). A few of his ideas:

• Provide adequate funding for authorizers. Diligent authorizing is tough, time-intensive work, as Osborne’s paper explains. States should consider a mix of state appropriations and per-pupil fees to sustain that work, among other funding strategies.

• Create charter contracts that set “specific, measurable” academic goals for charters, while allowing enough flexibility to judge them fairly, given their distinct academic goals and structures.

• Require that all charters be granted five-year terms, with one review in between. If charters are given 10- and 15-year terms, the odds of serious reviews of those schools’ work are slim, Osborne says.

• Establish at least one politically independent entity that spends all its time authorizing work. Ideally, these entities are more insulated from political pressures, and they give those who want to create charters alternatives to getting approval from local districts, which may not want a charter competing for students with traditional public schools.

• Encourage authorizers to replace poor-performing charters with new charters with successful records. Too often, charter schools are renewed simply because, if they weren’t, authorizers suspect “the students would end up in worse schools,” Osborne says. States can amend their laws to create incentives for authorizers to replace failing charters, and give authorizers more options.

According to recent data from the Center for Education Reform, of 6,700 charter schools that have opened since 1992, 1,036, or 15 percent have closed. According to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the rate of closures among charters up for renewal has declined recently. Even so, a charter school is much more likely to close than a traditional public schools, Osborne points out. But if backers of charters are going to “harness their true potential,” he argues in his paper, they also “need to heighten that risk.”

A different view was offered by one of the panelists, Lindsey Burke, of the conservative Heritage Foundation. She argued that public officials should be wary of turning too much power to close charters over to authorizers. The ultimate authorizers, she said, are parents, who decide, based on the available information, whether or not to choose a charter and keep their children there. (That position is shared by some other backers of school choice, who fear over-regulation will stifle competition and innovation.

“Closures have to be parent-driven,” Burke said, adding: “To me, accountability is a matter of transparency and choice.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.