The charter promise is not, “We will give you a charter to run a public school and flexibility from many of the rules and regulations constraining traditional schools. But if you fail to achieve what you promise to achieve we will insist that you submit a plan that outlines what you might do about it and begin to engage in a five-year self-improvement process.” The deal is simpler. “If you perform and attract students, you get flexibility and you stay open. If you do not perform or families won’t show up, you are closed.” If only people could stick to the plan.
A recent study commissioned by Colorado’s Get Smart Schools explored Colorado’s failing schools and the state’s obligations to engage in “turnaround” efforts. The study provides excellent information and a long list of recommendations for the state as it faces the serious challenge of what to do to make good on its commitment to “turn around” almost 200 public schools serving more than 80,000 students. Sadly, the study does not see the obvious answer for the 21 failing charter schools on that list. Close them! The report didn’t say that.
I predict many states will commission similar studies in the next year and ponder the same challenge. These studies and those to come will all ask the same question: what should we do about all the schools we have identified as failing? The reluctance of studies like this to state the obvious implication of charter failure is vexing.
The Colorado study was conducted by Robin Baker, Paul Teske, and Kelly Hupfeld at UC Denver, along with Paul Hill, from CRPE. It presents a lot of data on kids, schools, and districts affected by this policy. At the heart of this issue rests Colorado’s system of accrediting schools and districts, which is also the state’s latest iteration of a federally-approved accountability regime. In it, the state identifies the worst performing schools using a sophisticated growth measure. The state then oversees efforts conducted by schools and districts to make a dramatic change in these schools. Like other states, the range of turnaround options includes restructuring, changes in leadership and staff, working with outside contractors or providers, converting to charter status, or closure.
For charter schools, the most obvious and compelling strategy is closure. However, the report barely mentions it. This report, and those that follow, should add a targeted intervention for charters that persistently fail – policy should lead the state or their authorizer to close almost all of them.
It is almost as if people are afraid that if we insist on closing failing charters, we would have to make similar steps for traditional public schools. But traditional public schools don’t operate under the charter premise, so a longer list of possible interventions is fair for them. This is a situation where treating everything the same is not the same as doing what is right or fair.
This awkward unwillingness of the report’s authors to recommend the obvious for failing charters reflects the same challenge that reluctant authorizers also face when they know they should close a school, but decline. To address this natural reluctance, state policy should establish a default system that closes charter schools if the state declares those schools to be failures.
Colorado, and indeed most states with a significant number of failing charter schools, should consider mandating the closure of charters that are identified as failing on state accountability systems. Of course, we need exceptions for schools that are making dramatic impacts on the lives of students that we can see, or that are clearly alternative schools serving extremely at-risk populations. However, with those things in place, which is the case in Colorado, being brave about closure should be something that makes it onto our “to do” list.