Closing a charter is painful, difficult work

Fordham has learned a lot about sponsoring charter schools in the last three years. Now we've gained experience in the unfortunate task of closing some schools. The Omega School of Excellence, and East End Community School, in Dayton, and Veritas Cesar Chavez Academy, in Cincinnati, will not reopen next year. All three closed for different reasons, and in none of the three were the governing boards in opposition with the sponsor about the need to close. Even done amicably, however, the experience provides lessons along the way that apply to charter school closures generally:

1. Theory collides with reality. Closing a school seems pretty straightforward: parents will send their children to good charter schools, and the poor ones will close for lack of enrollment because parents won't send their children to a bad school. This premise doesn't necessarily hold true. And, when a school does close, the reality is a complicated, confusing, painful, and expensive process for all concerned. What makes it tough is that you're dealing with stakeholders who are emotionally and financially attached to the school. For example, parents made a conscious decision to send their child to the school and the choice is being taken away from them. Teachers lose their jobs and are tossed into a tough labor market. You're forcing people to participate in the death of something about which they care deeply.

2. School closure is costly. This is true not just in terms of extra dollars spent by the sponsor and the school's governing authority, but also in terms of the amount of time that the sponsor, governing authority, and school staff need to devote to closure. The governing authority still needs to close the year out and complete all required financial reports, tax forms, and audits. Then there's the staff time associated with reviewing and submitting innumerable bureaucratic forms and documents to the state and federal governments. For the sponsor, the major expense is the time devoted to overseeing closure. This can take more than a year, and this is if the closure is done amicably and does not include costly lawsuits.

3. Responsibility falls up. If the closure is mutually agreed to, the school's governing authority and sponsor work together to do a tough job well. The buck, however, ultimately stops with the sponsor. If the closure is not amicable, the sponsor is still on the hook for ensuring that teachers show up to teach and students show up to learn. The sponsor must explain to teachers, parents, students, and the state why the school is being closed. The sponsor has to pull the trigger on whether or not to close a school before the end of the year and to ensure that proper closing procedures are followed, all state and federal reporting requirements are met and assets are distributed fairly. A sponsor that chooses to close a school against the will of the governing authority is, we assume, in a very lonely spot faced with a hostile board, disgruntled staff, angry parents and students, and curious media.

4. Communication is critical. The key players-state, sponsor, governing authority, and operator-must be on the same page so that all stakeholders hear consistent messages. Rumors abound, and, when you've got different people making contradictory statements or giving bad information to parents and the public, things likely will go downhill fast.

5. Still, leaving a school open may be worse than closing it. Allowing a school, be it underperforming or under-funded, to limp along is irresponsible and damaging to children. If it's underperforming, you subject students to attending an inferior school, which, in turn, affects their education. If it's under-funded, you put the staff and students at risk of closure mid-year. This means people have to find new schools and jobs at a time when other alternatives might be fully enrolled.

It would be much easier if a bad school closed because no one showed up any more. Because children are involved, however, closure is complicated, confusing, painful, and expensive. The biggest lesson of all is that the decision should not be made lightly.

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