Monday, June 09, 2008

Closing Charter Schools

The Education blog Quick and the Ed1 notes a headline in today's WaPo "Charter to Close Over Academics" and notes that we don't see that headline applied to traditional public schools. Setting that aside, fact is, we hadn't seen it applied to charter schools in Ohio until Marc Dann started going after them.

Last week's Ohio Gadfly2 published a piece on their experience as a charter school sponsor forced to close schools.3 It's long, but it gives a lot of detail about the difficulty closing charter schools for academics (as opposed to financial mismanagement which was the basis for all the closings pre-Dann.)

  • Theory collides with reality. Closing a school seems pretty straightforward: parents will send their children to good charter schools, and the poor ones will close for lack of enrollment because parents won't send their children to a bad school. This premise doesn't necessarily hold true. And, when a school does close, the reality is a complicated, confusing, painful, and expensive process for all concerned. What makes it tough is that you're dealing with stakeholders who are emotionally and financially attached to the school. For example, parents made a conscious decision to send their child to the school and the choice is being taken away from them. Teachers lose their jobs and are tossed into a tough labor market. You're forcing people to participate in the death of something about which they care deeply.
  • School closure is costly. This is true not just in terms of extra dollars spent by the sponsor and the school's governing authority, but also in terms of the amount of time that the sponsor, governing authority, and school staff need to devote to closure. The governing authority still needs to close the year out and complete all required financial reports, tax forms, and audits. Then there's the staff time associated with reviewing and submitting innumerable bureaucratic forms and documents to the state and federal governments. For the sponsor, the major expense is the time devoted to overseeing closure. This can take more than a year, and this is if the closure is done amicably and does not include costly lawsuits.
  • Responsibility falls up. If the closure is mutually agreed to, the school's governing authority and sponsor work together to do a tough job well. The buck, however, ultimately stops with the sponsor. If the closure is not amicable, the sponsor is still on the hook for ensuring that teachers show up to teach and students show up to learn. The sponsor must explain to teachers, parents, students, and the state why the school is being closed. The sponsor has to pull the trigger on whether or not to close a school before the end of the year and to ensure that proper closing procedures are followed, all state and federal reporting requirements are met and assets are distributed fairly. A sponsor that chooses to close a school against the will of the governing authority is, we assume, in a very lonely spot faced with a hostile board, disgruntled staff, angry parents and students, and curious media.
  • Communication is critical. The key players--state, sponsor, governing authority, and operator--must be on the same page so that all stakeholders hear consistent messages. Rumors abound, and, when you've got different people making contradictory statements or giving bad information to parents and the public, things likely will go downhill fast.
All of the above are reasons why relying solely or even heavily on the free market to ensure charter school accountability has failed in Ohio. In fact, Ohio's charter system suffers from three inter-related deficiencies.
  1. For years the Department of Education did little to police the quality of the people setting up charters or their plans for doing so. As a result, dozens of charters were set up with no real chance for success.
  2. The philosophy for holding charters accountable was essentially laissez faire economics -- the market would guarantee accountability. For various reasons, including those listed above, that hasn't worked.
  3. The law has left it to sponsors to regulate charters, but has done little to hold sponsors4 accountable. In fact an number of sponsors have fallen through a legislative donut hole and are literally accountable to no one. Furthermore, sponsors get money from keeping charters open and stop getting money when they close, so the economic incentives built into the system are perverse.
There have been a couple of attempts to tighten reins on charters and, in particular, put real teeth into sponsor accountability. Unfortunately none has gone very far. More unfortunately, when Democrats start dealing with charters, they stampede to a moratorium, which does nothing to solve either the problem of bad set-ups or of holding existing charters accountable.

We need to be talking about this. Charters aren't going away in Ohio and can provide some real benefits if done right. We are far from doing this right.

1Not necessarily conservative, but interested in reform in a way that includes general friendliness to charter schools.

2Published by the Thomas Fordham Foundation which is both charter-friendly and conservative.

3By the way, one of the charters mentioned as closing -- East End Community School -- is actually being absorbed into Dayton Public Schools, which also should have been mentioned in another piece in that issue. In fact the issue as a whole in uncharacteristically sloppy.

4 To review, sponsors, are separate entities from either the schools themselves, or from for-profit education management oranizations (EMOs) like the dread White Hat. The law basically privatizes regulation by vesting authority in sponsors, but without and oversight.