When Bad Charters Stay Open, Parents Deserve a Warning

By James Merriman

The charter movement has created some truly terrific schools, but also some schools that chronically fail their students. The failures are supposed to be shut down by their authorizers, but after two decades we know the ugly truth: far, far too often low-quality charter schools are allowed to remain open.

Sometimes authorizers lack the capacity and standards they need, and NACSA is doing great work to change that. More often there’s a tougher problem: parents and public officials don’t want school closure, and authorizers lack the political will to say otherwise.

It wasn’t supposed to work that way.  In theory, closure by an authorizer would be a backstop option, since parents would tend to “vote with their feet” against a low-quality school. Instead, invested parents tend to persist at failing schools, calling on the authorizer to go in and fix them—exactly what authorizers are not equipped, empowered, or intended to do.

Unable to offer a fix, but fearing backlash from a closure, too many authorizers do nothing. The result: schools that fail children with little or no consequence. Could it be time to take another tack?

Here’s what we should try in states with weak authorizers: legislation to require any chronically low-performing charter school to be stripped of its status as a charter and renamed something else. (An “Option School,” let’s say.) The reasons for this change would be explained to parents, and all enrollment materials would carry the equivalent of a warning label: this school may be hazardous to your child’s educational health. In return, the school would be allowed to stay open (though monitored for safety, legal, fiscal, and operational problems).

The few people I have discussed this idea with over the years have uniformly hated it. They say, how could the government possibly allow and fund a school that it has declared is failing and bad for children?  I agree, but isn’t that what the government is doing now?  It just isn’t admitted, out loud, where parents can hear it.

Look, we know that failing charter schools aren’t being closed often enough. We go to conferences and earnestly deplore that fact. While we try to strengthen the authorizers, we should also strengthen parents to make informed choices. If that means using explicit warnings and even the stigma of a different name, that’s fine with me.

And if option schools would prompt weak authorizers to get serious about charter school quality control, that would be even better.


6 thoughts on “When Bad Charters Stay Open, Parents Deserve a Warning

  1. Leonie Haimson

    So, James, as the head of the NYC Charter Center, why don’t you point out the bad charter schools yourself? Why not publish a parent guide to charters? Why wait for government to do that ? Esp. as you don’t trust the govt. in other ways?

  2. Mona Davids

    James- Interesting article. So, what do you recommend for a failing, mismanaged charter governed by a founder’s board where the Chair, who wants to shut the school down is unable to because the school leader/founder won’t let him?

    What would you say about parents at a charter where majority of students are failing but parents say they’re extremely happy with the education their children are receiving? However, parents may not know the majority of students including their kids are failing because the school leader never informed them?

    What do you say about a school leader who commits fraud protected by a founder’s board?

    Do you think charter board members who are malfeasant should continue to walk away unscathed when charters are shut down for financial mismanagement and failing scores?

    Will you or the charter lobby ever step up when the stench of a mismanaged, failing charter school becomes too much and demand it be shut down in the best interests of the children’s education.

    Will you or the charter lobby support a charter parent trigger allowing parents at a charter school to remove the leadership and board replacing them with a high performing charter operator?

  3. Hon. Chris Owens

    I have noticed that so-called education “reformers” have advocated for a “parent trigger” to allow dissatisfied parents to transform their failing public schools into charter schools.

    Do the reformers also advocate that dissatisfied charter parents can transform their charter schools into district schools?

  4. Peter Murphy

    I assume this is a national discussion of charters, and not specfic to New York State since the state has been quite diligent in not renewing low-performing schools and putting others on probation and corrective action well before renewal time in order to allow time to improve. As to the parent trigger, it makes little sense to apply it to charters since they already are schools of choice for parents in contrast to a district school which is not.

  5. T. Elliott

    I agree. Here in Florida I have notice that several students attend charter schools because they find it hard to cope in public schools. Some charter schools are just a front. The parents have the right to know if the charter schools is failing.

  6. David KC

    I think charter board members who are malfeasant should continue to walk away unscathed when charters are shut down for financial mismanagement and failing scores?

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