Not Just Player – Coach But Umpire – Player?

This story in The NY Post about whether charter school authorizers should try to improve low-performing charter schools rather than shut them down is illustrative of a conversation you’re hearing a lot right now.  It’s easy to understand the motivations, school closures are disruptive in multiple ways.  Still, I part ways with many of my charter friends on this one and have serious concerns about the approach.  Here are three reasons why:

You can’t play and call balls and strikes.*  Charter school authorizers are the referees, umpires, judges, [insert metaphor here] for charter schools.  They’re supposed to make the calls on the front end about who gets to open a school, and close down the ones that are not working.   That’s a vital role and one of the big lessons from almost two decades of chartering is how important authorizers are to quality.  It’s a hard enough role as it is.  Once you put authorizers in the position of being at once a regulator and a support agency, you’ve put the authorizer in the game too much.  If they’re helping schools improve they own those decisions in a way that blurs the lines too much.  We already have plenty of school districts that refuse to acknowledge and address failure because the incentives are wrong.  Why create more?**

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be assistance for schools.  In our analysis of charter policy in 12 cities and states (pdf) Sara Mead and I found that intermediate support agencies are key for charter quality.   But authorizers are badly positioned to play that role.

There is a pipeline of good schools. One thing authorizers can do is make sure that the space a low-performing school is in can be used by a different school, public or public charter, after the low-performing school closes.   There are a lot of great charters that struggle to find adequate and cost-effective space.  From an operational standpoint, in general the best place to open a school is in a former school.  The necessary facilities (eg classrooms, library space, refrigeration and commercial kitchen for meals, etc…) is already there saving money on expensive renovations.   From a governance standpoint there are a variety of ways to address transitions but the choice should not be framed as lousy school versus no school.   Done right it’s lousy school versus more promising school.  That helps with the disruption issue.

The ‘no crap’ doctrine matters.  It takes lots of tangible and intangible things to make a school outstanding.  But one of them is a belief is success and the ability to achieve it.  That’s why Joe Williams’ ‘no crap’ doctrine is important to bear in mind.  The culture we need is a one that doesn’t tolerate low-performing schools in any sector.    Leave aside the operational and regulatory issues here, moving down this road opens the door for too much tolerance of struggling schools.   We have too many of them already and ought to take a hard line here as on the quality issue more generally.

Related: My thoughts on where we are on charters more generally here. A look specifically at charter school closures here (pdf). On the closures issue, here’s a thought:

If the FDIC can come in and seamlessly take over a failing bank with it barely being visible to the consumer, why isn’t there some non-profit offering similar services to charter school authorizers? The messiness of school closures is a disincentive to act.  Isn’t one way to minimize disruption for kids to, you know, minimize disruption for kids?

**And worth noting that most charter school authorizers are still school districts in the first place, which is why I never understand why the charter quality problems are somehow considered a great vindication for the existing system.

*Unless you’re Joe West?

4 Replies to “Not Just Player – Coach But Umpire – Player?”

  1. Why do we continue to repeate the myth that authorizers can’t improve their schools? Granted few are currently doing this very well, but employers give their employees professional development and still fire them if they’re not performing up to snuff.

    Why can’t authorizers do the same for their schools?

  2. I agree that having a charter school authorizer overhaul a failing school’s administration and staff is a bad idea. But what if authorizers allowed new groups to apply to take over schools that were failing, and basically give the charter to a brand new board, which is then responsible for picking a new administration and program. The authorizer would in no way be running the school; it would be selecting the best operator to take over the building and students (who could choose to stay or go) and implement its own program. They’d have the same performance contract as the original board, say a five year charter to prove themselves capable of turnaround. Isn’t this pretty much the same as the federal turnaround option for district schools being converted into charter schools?

  3. Gideon, your suggestion is EXACTLY what we at SUNY are doing in this case. We are absolutely not taking it upon ourselves to overhaul the school’s administration and/or staff; not our role. Our role is to vet applications that seek to run schools that provide excellent educational opportunities for the students of New York State. Media coverage thus far seems to either (a) assume that the broader public won’t see the difference or (b) ignore that this is essentially a new approach to charter school closure. Bottom line: new board, new operator; same high degree of accountability, same kids.

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