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.