The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) just wrapped up its annual leadership conference in Memphis, Tennessee. At the conference, NACSA announced a “One Million Lives” campaign that will focus on working with authorizers to close failing charters and open twice as many high quality schools to provide one million students higher quality school options over the next five years. So it is no surprise that the major areas of discussion at the conference were around the nuances of charter school closures and the strategies for identifying and supporting good, new charter schools.
School Closures: There is general consensus that closing failing charter schools is critical—no one is arguing to change the charter bargain of autonomy in exchange for accountability. But in reality, not enough under-performing charter schools have been shut down (NACSA reports that the closure rate for charters up for renewal in 2010-11 was 6.2 percent, down from 8.8 percent in 2009-10 and 12.6 percent in 2008-09). As one panelist put it, “If [the charter sector] doesn’t deal with the closure issue, we’ll become the same blob we’re trying to replace.” So, what ideas are percolating?
- Automatic or default closure mandates. Change state laws or authorizing practices to establish firm cutoffs (e.g.,priority schools as defined by ESEA) where a charter school is not granted additional time to attempt a turn-around. (Addressed in NAPCS’ Fulfilling the Compact report.)
- Develop and implement performance frameworks to monitor charter achievement. And even better, use the same performance framework to make tough decisions about both charters and traditional public schools (e.g., Denver Public Schools).
- Differentiated charter renewal contracts. Rather than giving charter schools 5, 10, or 15 year contracts, authorizers can develop short term contracts for schools that need to improve to fulfill the goals outlined in their charters.
- Find ways to get authorizers and charter support organizations to work together to ensure that necessary closures happen.
Of course, the closure conversation involves caveats. Closure decisions have to take into account context, such as schools with high percentages of alternative education students.
Opening and Replicating High Quality Charters: There has been a good amount of talk among authorizers about dealing with the quality issue by just approving good schools on the front end. Easier said than done, right? Here are some of the ideas discussed:
- Charter school incubators allow more time for structured and thoughtful new school development (for example, The Mind Trust, New Schools for New Orleans, and Tennessee Charter School Incubator).
- Authorizers are concerned about performing their due diligence when it comes to replicating networks or schools operated by management organizations. Moreover, there appears to be a realization that the authorizer becomes a partner of sorts when approving significant numbers of campuses from one network, because there is more to lose if the schools do not perform well.
Relevant to both of these themes, CREDO presented new data suggesting that charter school performance in the first two years of existence is a very good predictor of future performance. While the details of the analyses need to be ironed out, the study has practical implications for authorizers. Specifically, charter schools that do not show evidence that they can produce substantive levels of positive growth in student performance within two years are unlikely to make significant improvements in future years. Authorizers can use this body of evidence to support tough closure decisions.