Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Is it Easier to Close a Charter School?

Closing a traditional public school is rarely an easy task. Cities with declining populations have had one heck of a time closing neighborhood schools -- I can't count how many times a planned school closing has spawned a community uprising. And when school board members are elected by district it's even tougher -- what're the odds of getting re-elected if you let a school in your district be shut down despite raucous opposition from a group of concerned citizens?

While traditional public schools are often built to remain a permanent (at least for the foreseeable future) fixture of the community, charter schools are necessarily designed to be opened and closed with much greater frequency. The market theory underlying charter schools dictates that only the strong shall survive. So, in order for charters to live up to the promise of this theory they must be shuttered with greater frequency than other schools.

The expectation that charter schools will be closed unless they meet certain expectations should make them easier to close, but I'm not sure that it does. On the one hand, there's not usually a neighborhood or large alumni base rallying to save a charter school on its way out. On the other hand, charters to attract the students of more socially active parents. Take this article (hat tip: Alexander Russo) in yesterday's Fresno Bee, for example. The local KIPP school there is on the verge of closing, and parents are up in arms.

Granted, the school's not being shuttered for low performance -- it's the second highest-performing middle school in the district based on the current grading system -- but rather a set of complex circumstances. It seems that the school has defaulted on a construction loan that they thought would be repaid by a state grant. Meanwhile, the state won't give them the grant until the city signs off on it. And the city won't sign off on it until the school fixes a number of problems that were noted in a recent report -- including charges of corporal punishment by the principal (who has resigned), the hiring of uncredentialed teachers and the lack of fingerprinting before hiring staff.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether closing a charter is easier, on average, than closing a traditional public school. I have to believe that more people arise when a neighborhood school is threatened, but which would you fight harder: the closing of your neighborhood school or the closing of a school you had chosen yourself and for which you had to submit yourself to three hours of interviews, woken up at dawn every day to drive your child to school, and signed a contract that you would read with your child every night?


Sherman Dorn said...

Have you read Sy Fliegel's book about the Spanish Harlem middle-school choice program? One of the issues he addresses explicitly is closing down programs.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

No. But it's quite obvious that I should spend more time reading and less time blogging.

Roger Sweeny said...

Oh, my God!!!!!!! Uncredentialed teachers? Which is more important, the second highest student performance in the district or the fact that some teachers haven't spent the requisite amount of time in--and paid the requisite amount of money to--ed schools.

I suppose the answer is obvious.

Anonymous said...

Roger: I agree that formal teaching credentials are unimportant. As a former teacher, I taught in private schools before receiving my state teaching credential and taught in public school after receiving it. Didn't see much difference in my teaching pre- or post-program. Still had the same strengths and weaknesses as a teacher in private school or in public school. I personally think teaching credentials as such should be abandoned. They provide an unnecessary barrier to entry to the profession with no particular value (especially for people trying to become teachers after graduating from college; e.g., career-switchers).

KitchenSink said...

As you suggest, it is a complicated issue; in theory, it's easier to close a charter school than a district school.

But the main reason more charter schools that are underperforming aren't closed isn't about more-active parents (in my experience charter schools do more to engage parents once they are in the door, so any unscientific assertion that charters a priori attract more active parents is just someone's opinion, which is worth about as much as mine, which isn't worth much without data); ahem, back to my original point, the main reason is disorganized and/or gutless authorizers. Quality authorizing, which includes shutting down schools when appropriate, is an assumption in the state charter laws. There are good authorizers and bad authorizers. The bad ones have few consistent metrics by which they measure schools, have high turnover in decision making staffing positions, and don't take the time to understand the missions of the schools under their aegis. The good ones know when to pull the plug, because they have reached a degree of certainty with their expectations and their methods.

No one seems to be talking about this issue, and that's a travesty.