Paul Hill's National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington recently issued a wide-ranging, nicely balanced appraisal of the charter-school movement circa 2005 - emphasizing how loosely coupled it is, how different from state to state and school to school, indeed how it's not fairly termed a national movement at all. (See here.)

One chapter is especially provocative and timely: Andy Rotherham on "the pros and cons of charter school closures."  

Everyone knows that a key element of the "charter bargain" is that non-performing schools are supposed to vanish via sponsors shutting them or not renewing their contracts. Yet in the real world this doesn't happen very often. Across all the states that reported school-closure data for 2004-2005, Rotherham says, there were just 65 such events, involving only 2 percent of the schools in those states. Fifteen states reported no closures.

Yes, there are occasional high-profile events such as the abrupt shut-down (on grounds of financial mismanagement) of the multi-campus California Charter Academy in summer 2004. In fact, that's where the topic begins to get interesting and complicated. Did that school's sponsors behave conscientiously? Did they even have the right incentives to behave conscientiously? One doesn't have to dig very deep into the CCA saga, Rotherham explains, to discover that the authorizers, far from being attentive watchdogs, were complicit in something akin to charter fraud. They were making money from the authorizer fees they were collecting.

I don't know much about how it works in California, but in Ohio, where the Fordham Foundation is an authorizer, the main source of revenue to sponsors (other than whatever money of their own they can afford to apply to this work) is fees paid by the schools and calibrated to the schools' enrollment. In effect, authorizers have a financial incentive to sponsor lots of schools, to sponsor bigger schools, and not to close them down (or reduce their size), no matter what.

This is perverse and wrong, and it flies in the face of responsible authorizing. And it's exacerbated by the political difficulty of closing (or even threatening to close) weak charters. "That is because," Rotherham writes, "charter schools, even poorly-performing ones, are proving wildly popular with parents.... The old adage that closing a school is like moving a graveyard is as true of charter schools as it is of traditional neighborhood schools."

We certainly see this in Ohio, where desperate parents cling to their charter school even when it fails to deliver on its academic promises, if only because it's safe, friendly, and welcoming. The Dayton Daily News's perceptive education writer, Scott Elliott, recently wrote that "what appeals to parents" are "access, discipline, character building, back-to-basics." In state after state, efforts to close or non-renew a charter school run into fierce resistance from parents and community residents (and their elected officials) as well as from school operators (and their attorneys).

Must we abandon this crucial element of the "charter bargain"? Rotherham embraces the NACSA principles of quality authorizing and sets forth the two obvious choices for authorizers: either be fussy in advance about the schools they authorize or relentless (the heck with politics) about closing those that malfunction.

Yet state funding schemes (as in Ohio) push the other way. Being too fussy in advance also means avoiding risks that might be worth taking, such as when someone without much of a track record still has the spark that could yield a terrific school. And being relentless about closures is simply na??ve, both about political realities in American cities where desperate parents face bad alternatives, and about the readiness of school operators - and, especially, their prospering lawyers - to fight all such moves in court. Or (in places with multiple authorizers - another key tenet of charter-school theology) the operator of a failing school will simply seek a less persnickety sponsor.

"In practice, therefore," Rotherham correctly notes, "high-quality authorizers find themselves between these two extremes."

What to do? Today the charter movement is feeling its way. There aren't many good precedents in K-12 education. Nobody except the marketplace closes private schools. And district-operated schools almost never close (save when enrollment plummets) and certainly not due to quality issues (though NCLB pressure to "restructure" them may change that). 

If the authorizers don't figure this out, the charter movement is in trouble. Ohio House speaker Jon Husted, a longtime champion of charter schools, spelled this out for attendees at an important statewide conference on charter quality on November 18. State officials, he said bluntly, will continue imposing regulation after regulation on both schools and sponsors until and unless the "movement" finds a way to assure quality and performance.

My own view in late 2005 (subject to change as we get more experience in the authorizing role) can be summarized in this way:

  1. States need to pay directly for quality sponsorship lest sponsors become fiscal captives of the schools they authorize. (In the short run, philanthropists can help with this.)

  2. Authorizers, too, need to be accountable to someone, just as schools are accountable to them. The state department of education isn't always a sound choice, but policymakers need to make some choice.

  3. Multiple authorizers solves one problem but creates another. Whatever responsible party monitors the authorizers in a state must watch for situations where operator and authorizer tacitly conspire to keep a weak school going.

  4. In evaluating schools and operators for sponsorship, authorizers need to check out their education plans, organizational viability, and fiscal adequacy. It's OK to take a risk on one of those fronts, so long as the other two look healthy. Indeed, it's important to take some risks.

  5. Sponsors should closely monitor their schools, constantly gathering data on all fronts, and should blow whistles - offering both warnings and leads to technical assistance - when they spot trouble ahead.

  6. When warranted, sponsors must bite the bullet and close (or not renew) sorely troubled schools. But there are many steps they can take (Rotherham itemizes these) to mitigate the consequences for families and communities. (The GAO report mentioned below offers advice on this front, too.)

  7. Sponsors should both embrace the NACSA principles and subject themselves and their decisions to at least as much transparency as they expect from the schools they authorize.           

We gotta get this right.

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