Thursday, November 29, 2012

Closing Bad Charters

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers said 900 to 1,300 of the privately run, publicly financed schools should close because they are in the bottom 15 percent of public schools in their states. Here's a link to their press release and a Bloomberg News story that the Seattle Times ran.

In short, there are a number of poor performing charter schools and, according to NACSA, they should be closed. NACSA also calls for states to add school closure provisions to their charter school authorizing laws.
"For the first time, NACSA is urging state legislatures to adopt new laws that hold both schools and authorizers accountable for their performance. NACSA is also calling for the establishment of statewide authorizing offices because they are more likely to implement professional practices based on high standards and promote quality growth. These changes will help create more successful new schools, including replications, while facilitating the closure of hundreds of schools that are falling short."
NACSA points to the new charter school law here in Washington as a model. Section 220 of I-1240 speaks to the closure of under-performing charters:

Section 220 (2):
"A charter contract may not be renewed if, at the time of the renewal application, the charter school's performance falls in the bottom quartile of schools on the accountability index developed by the state board of education under RCW 28A.657.110, unless the charter school demonstrates exceptional circumstances that the authorizer finds justifiable."
So there it is. The school must, absolutely, positively close - unless the authorizer (in its sole discretion) says it doesn't have to. The "exceptional circumstances" are not defined. They are, essentially, whatever the authorizer says they are.

So all of the much-ballyhooed accountability for charter schools in Washington State will come down to a subjective determination by the authorizer. While school districts are eligible to become authorizers, the primary one will be the state commission. And who are they? See Section 208 of I-1240.
  • They are "an independent state agency"
    • As an idependant state agency, there is no oversight of their activities. Not by the governor, not by the OSPI, not by anyone. They are completely unaccountable. This is an apparent violation of the state constitution
  • "The commission shall... administer the portion of the public common school system consisting of the charter schools it authorizes as provided in this chapter, in the same manner as a school district board of directors"
    • I wonder to what extent the laws governing school boards govern them. School Board decisions can be appealed to a Superior Court. Does that rule extend to the commission? Without that, are they completely unaccountable? Will the commission be responsible for submitting requests for conditional certificates like a school board? Will the commission have to sign off on grant proposals and contracts like a school board?
  • "The commission shall consist of nine members" appointed, three each, by the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the speaker of the state house.
    • As Mel has frequently noted, there is no provision for a review and confirmation of these appointments and there is no provision for removing a commissioner from office other than at the expiration of the commissioner's term. This also means no accountability for the commission members.
  • "All members shall have demonstrated an understanding of and commitment to charter schooling as a strategy for strengthening public education."
    • This is the central concern. If the commission members are all charter school boosters, how likely are they to ever decide to close a charter school? Especially when they can not be held accountable for that decision.
It is, of course, possible that the charter school commission members will be diligent about closing underperforming charters in Washington State and narrowly defining "exceptional circumstances". If they are, it will be due entirely to their personal integrity and not due to any strength in the law. If they are not diligent about it, there isn't anything that anyone can do - unless, like a school board, their decisions can be appealed to a Superior Court.

In the end, there can be no celebrating when a school closes. It is a horrible experience for the entire community. No one wishes it to happen and we should not be flip about school closures. School closures don't really solve anything, and the promotion of closures as a solution to underperforming schools strikes me as callous to an extreme.

8 comments:

mirmac1 said...

I think we would hurt fewer people and save more money if we just close the 40 charters in WA before they even open.

Anonymous said...

It just occurred to me while reading this - if an existing public school is converted to a charter, which is then closed due to these provisions, does the district get to claim the school back as a standard public school?

-- D's mom

Charlie Mas said...

The funniest part of this article can be found in the comments where some folks with poor math skills assert that half (or more) of public schools are in the bottom 15%.

Charlie Mas said...

D's mom - I-1240 says that all of the rental agreements for charter schools must have provisions for the school's possible closure.

In the case of a conversion school, the district never loses ownership of the school property. The district can do what they like with it if the charter closes.

Melissa Westbrook said...

D, that's a good question. I don't know. One interesting outcome that has happened in other states is when a charter buys a school building.

Meaning, you open a crappy school and gain a building. Run the school into the ground and then close it. You then own a piece of property that you bought cheaply (under the terms of the law) and can NOW turn around and sell at a profit.

Under 1240, entirely possible.

FYI, the NACSA is one of the more sober charter associations. They actually WANT to get rid of the many bad apples because those bad apples are going to wreck their movement. If they say it is this bad, I'd believe them. And yes, they are funded by Gates and Walton.

Jan said...

Melissa: that possibility (forcing a sale of District property at market value (or less than market value) occurred to me too). Assuming all the other unconstitutional things in this initiative get fixed, that one needs to be fixed by amending the Act to provide that all such sales require sale back to the District at the original sale price, if the charter is closed, or otherwise goes out of business. Otherwise, this provision could be badly abused -- particularly if a piece of property was located on land that was quite valuable for commercial development. If the District is compelled to sell property, the deal should obviously be -- you have it as long as you want it for running a school. Tired of that gig? Great -- we will take it back at the same price. But -- that is not how the law currently reads.

Charlie Mas said...

The law only says that the district MAY sell a building to a charter school at below fair market value. It does not say that the District MUST sell a building to a charter school for less than it's worth.

Frankly, I don't see why a school district should EVER sell a building for less than its full worth, but Seattle Public Schools has done it a number of times.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of sales of school properties below market value - what is currently up with the former MLK building?

Anon writer