Closing bad charters

After a national election where both candidates supported enhanced funding for charter schools, and the appointment of a Secretary of Education who has seen an expansion of charters in his Chicago district (47 over his term), it is hopefully time to move past the debate on if there should be charter schools at all, and talk instead about how they can be effective as part of a larger system of public education.

The promise of charter schools is simple: Give educators control over their schools to allow for different ideas and approaches.  These schools then set specific goals, and in return for increased freedom, they promise higher accountability and better results. All this is detailed in a contract between the charter and the local school district with a limited time span (3-5 years). Over time, the charter models that succeed can be expanded, and the ones that fail can be closed.

In Denver, the first part of this equation has worked: charters include several of the highest-ranked schools in Denver according to DPS’s own School Performance Framework (SPF), including the only two non-elementary schools on the DPS “Distinguished” list. In fact, the only non-elementary schools with open enrollment to exceed DPS standards on either growth or status were charter schools. That is impressive.

However the last part of the equation — closing charter schools that are doing poorly — has been a dismal failure.  DPS has never closed a charter, and in fact has only recommended one charter for closure (a decision overturned by the State Board of Education).  The nadir of this cynical practice was the decision to keep CCI (now Amandla) open.  If you can’t close a school that has already been put on probation, has the worst SPF academic performance of any high school in DPS, has financial improprieties authorized by the head of school, and where a senior administrator is arrested in a nearby alley for buying crack, who can you close?

Without closing bad schools, the full promise of charter schools will never be fully realized — there will simply be a different method to educational failure. Closing bad charters is a key component to overall charter success.

The failure here is twofold: there is a lack of political will from the school board to displace any existing students (no matter how bad the environment), and there is no mechanism for effective closure. Charter schools are generally reviewed at the end of the contract  (or on a repeated and meaningless annual probation) at which point the school board faces a binary decision to shut the entire school or keep it open, with no other option. But if one changes the mechanism for closing bad charter schools, one reduces the need to miraculously grow political backbone. This can happen by simply modifying the basic charter contract.

Currently, there are virtually no consequences for charter schools who are not meeting basic levels of academic or financial performance (nor are there for district schools, but that is a different issue).  DPS should change their charter contracts to have automatic provisions that are triggered as a result of missing benchmarks on either the SPF or basic financial reporting. Here are two ideas:

1. Enrollment. Particularly for missing minimal academic standards, a charter school’s allowed enrollment should automatically decline and eventually be stopped altogether. Performing at the lowest level of the SPF (“Accredited on Probation”) for one year receives probation; a second straight year and enrollment for incoming grades is reduced by 50%, with no additional students allowed in additional grades.  If performance does not improve in the third year, new enrollment is stopped entirely, and eventually enrollment simply declines to zero students (as DPS is doing at district schools Kunsmiller and Rishel). There is no vote or politicking, and no displaced students — if there are exceptional circumstances, the charter can make its case before the school board, but the default position is that if a dchool does a bad job, they then do so with progressively less students.

Cutting enrollment would also result in a school able to focus on a smaller base of kids (hopefully increasing their academic performance).  Presumably, the least-effective teachers would be dismissed, additional attention would be paid to improvement, and the smaller school would have a chance to get better. It serves as a small step toward the harsher penalty of termination without displacing any students.

This proposal would also intentionally create some financial pressure: a school would see its PPOR reduced by roughly 12-15% on the initial enrollment cut, and then continue to decline over time.  Faced with consistently poor performance and declining funds, some schools that are unable to improve might even see the writing on the wall and close themselves.

2. Governance. One of the clear lessons on CCI was the lack of a governing board with oversight of the head of school. So another option for a charter school that misses annual academic or financial milestones would be to have its voting Board of Trustees reduced while DPS appoints member(s).  The appointed member(s) would address a specific problem: financial, educational or management.  For example, a charter could maintain a Board of 10 people, but on the second year of academic probation, 7 would have observation rights and only three would have voting rights.  Of the three voting positions the DPS member would take one slot.  Upon missing a second year, DPS would appoint a second voting member, which would give outside representation a voting majority.

Denver’s citizens are increasingly involved in DPS (various committees, groups and volunteers), and many might relish the chance to become more directly involved.  I think it is highly unlikely this would be applied to more than 1-2 schools a year, requiring a very small amount of personnel time.  This approach is similar to situations where there is a “minority” investor who is content to sit quietly when things are going well, but is given additional authority and control when things go badly.

Those are two ideas; there could easily be more.  DPS has vastly improved it’s initial chartering process, but the review and continuance of poor charters in a system that is designed to eliminate poor performers is even more of a disgrace than the continuance of poor district schools that have not contractually traded freedom for accountability.  DPS should either change the basic charter contract or form a committee to further examine ways to do so.

The debate and process for allowing charters to open has evolved greatly in the past few years; it is time for the debate and process on Closing charters to catch up, and fast.

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