Chapter 4: Bringing Top Teachers and Principals to Charters
As charter schools continue to multiply, they are becoming the dominant competitor to conventional district schools. Already, charter school students are more numerous than students in Catholic schools, other religious schools, or homeschooling (each of which hosts something under 2 million students), and they are three times as numerous as students in private secular schools (900,000). Within a decade, there may be as many American children in charter schools as in all of these other alternatives to conventional public school combined. Charters will be U.S. education’s leading Plan B.
In this ever‑more‑popular, multimillion‑student world, maintaining the quality of charter schools will be essential. “The challenge is increasingly to keep an eye on performance,” says Kevin Hall of the Charter School Growth Fund, “and to ensure that we take aggressive action when quality is not as high as it needs to be.”
Maintaining elevated standards among charters is important to the children who attend them today. It’s also important to protecting the public reputation of charters so they can continue to expand as alternatives to conventional schools. In a world where opponents of charters will to be quick to pounce on every weak result, charter supporters need to be demanding and enforce high expectations, so that the overall system generates excitement and support, allowing more children to have choices in the future.
One way that funders can assist in weeding out weak charters and keeping quality up is to create good measurement systems that assess how well schools are doing, and then get their results into the hands of authorizers and the general public in easily understood forms. By supplying families and authorizers with clear information on the performance of their local schools, donors can enable careful and accurate decisions. Being schools of choice, the users of charters can walk away if results droop. Charters have no captive audience.
Another method for bolstering charter school quality is to improve the authorizing system. It is authorizers in each state or city who select, monitor, and close charter schools. The education experts surveyed for this book by The Philanthropy Roundtable were asked to identify the greatest weaknesses of the charter movement throughout the past five years. Fully 98 percent picked “limited authorizer accountability for student results,” and 93 percent selected “failure to close enough low‑quality schools.”
Whether it happens via families voting with their feet or authorizing officials pronouncing with their pens, culling out weak performers is a healthy process. Donor Katherine Bradley, who has helped drive D.C.’s charter successes, notes that protecting schools from stiff market tests does our education system no favor. “Pressure to the system can actually be good. Our job as guardians is to keep pushing things. Let the resultant stress and change happen, and build a system where schools are adapting and getting better in the face of stressors. Some won’t make it, and that’s okay. Other schools will rise to these market demands.”
Charter school authorizers—the agencies that dispense charters and hold schools accountable—are supposed to be responsible for screening out poorly prepared applicants, overseeing schools, reviewing results, reinforcing schools that are lagging, and then closing down those that still fail their students. The researchers behind the 2013 Stanford CREDO study are blunt: “The quality of the charter sector at any point in time is largely determined by who is permitted to obtain a charter.”The charter sector as a whole has been too soft on getting rid of low performers.
Fully 90 percent of all authorizers today are local school districts. The remaining 10 percent of authorizers, though, are much more active and launch far more schools each, on average. So if you count the schools rather than the authorizers, you find that while 52 percent of all charter schools got their license to practice from a local district, the other half were authorized by a state education agency (19 percent of all schools), an independent board created specifically to authorize charter schools (15 percent), a college (9 percent), a nonprofit organization (4 percent), or a mayor or city council (less than 1 percent of all charter schools).
If authorizers quail or fail at their duties, quality can suffer fast. According to James Shelton, a former program director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who is currently a high official in the U.S. Department of Education, “the Achilles Heel of the charter school movement has been governance. The charter sector as a whole has been too soft on getting rid of low performers.”
Authorizers need intellectual, financial, technical, and moral support from donors that encourages them to make hard choices. Closing low‑performing schools is tricky. There can be legal action to contest decisions. Impassioned community protests are common. Accommodating students who are displaced by closures can be tough.
To help local authorities better navigate both the front‑end quality screens and the back‑end closure process, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers published an “Index of Essential Practices” in 2012. It grades member authorizers on their adherence to 12 fundamental indicators of quality. NACSA also holds a national conference for authorizers, promulgates regularly updated best practices in authorizing, conducts training for authorizers, provides in‑depth assistance to authorizers who end up in a pickle, and speaks for its members in policy circles.
There is plenty of room for more such guidance. Donors who want to improve authorizing could help by shedding light on current policies and practices, and by encouraging and supporting parties who are trying to build up the intellectual underpinnings and managerial strengths of authorizers.
Philanthropists wishing to make a mark on local authorizing practices might follow the lead of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Casey provided multi‑year support to help then‑mayor Bart Peterson develop a top‑notch authorizing system in Indianapolis. The grants enabled the mayor’s office to design a rigorous application process, a thorough results‑based accountability system, and a web portal providing information to families. After being launched with philanthropic dollars, the office is now self‑sustaining. Similarly, the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund provided resources to help California’s authorizers improve the processes they use to vet applications, via a grant funneled through NACSA. Many other authorizers could similarly strengthen their operations if offered such assistance.
One of the most effective authorizing bodies in the country today is the Public Charter School Board of the District of Columbia (where 43 percent of all the children who attend public schools are in charters and an additional 27 percent of the population is pounding on the door from a charter waiting list). It took the district a while to get its charter system on track. In the beginning, the old, politicized board of education was also an authorizer, and lots of mediocre schools got approved. But today the PCSB (whose members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council) is D.C.’s only charter authorizer, and it relies on detailed rating systems both to assess new applications and to track school quality once campuses are open.
The PCSB has created what it calls its “performance management framework” to assess various elements of academic progress and school climate so that different schools can be compared in a consistent way. Schools get scored on a scale from zero to 100, and the performance reports are made available to the public through an open website. The highest‑performing schools receive less frequent monitoring from the board and are encouraged to expand their programs and open new campuses.
The board offers schools that receive weak scores a few semesters to improve and move up the rating scale. If they don’t, those facilities are closed. Unlike in some places, this is not an idle possibility. The list of D.C. charter schools that have been shuttered now numbers 41, with the four latest closures taking place in 2013. All were penalized for academic weakness.
“When you close low performers you thereby create space for new innovators to come in and try new models,” explains Brian Jones, chairman of the board when these latest charters were pulled. “Part of the genius of the charter model is it does allow for a certain innovative churn,” Jones told the Washington Post.
The particular ways the PCSB handled these latest closures offer a glimpse into the sophistication of the organization’s operations. One of the unsuccessful schools was required to shutter two of its three campuses and to surrender its right to operate grades 1‑8, but it was allowed to use its third campus to focus on early childhood education. A different underperforming school was required to relinquish its charter, but the board allowed a merger of some of the school’s assets, plus its student body, into another charter school. This was a first for the board, an experiment aimed at helping the families caught up in the shutdown find replacement seats for their children. (The students will shift to a more effective Achievement Prep charter.) Meanwhile, another low‑performing school will be given several months to improve its student outcomes; if it fails, the campus will either be closed or perhaps merged with a better functioning school along the lines of the Achievement Prep example.
Like charter schools themselves, the best charter authorizers are innovating in entrepreneurial ways, with a strong focus on demonstrated performance, but a willingness to entertain unconventional ways of achieving that. And unsentimental toughness is as necessary in the initial authorizing process as it is for closures. The D.C. Public Charter School Board requires applicants for new charters to provide extensive detail on precisely how they will measure and improve the performance of their students—and it is picky. In 2013, the board received nine applications for new charters. It approved only two. “You want a system that is loose enough to allow innovation but also has a high bar for approval and takes closure seriously,” is how the board’s executive director, Scott Pearson, explained their process to the Wall Street Journal.
Donors emphasize school quality
Private donors have been crucial in raising performance standards within the charter sector. In the early days, the focus of charter advocates—and many donors—was on rapidly expanding the number of schools. Expansion is still a priority, but most funders now insist that the schools they back must be able to show superior student results, compared to other institutions with similar student bodies. This has taken on real urgency with the most active donors.
Despite widespread agreement that school quality is important, opinions have sometimes conflicted on the question of what exactly “quality” means. With the aim of developing agreement on the specific elements a charter school should have in order to be considered a success, a group of donors backed a project called Building Charter School Quality. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation were lead funders. The project convened education reformers, nonprofit leaders, academics, regulators, and foundations, and hammered out two reports, A Framework for Academic Quality and A Framework for Operational Quality, that set baselines for the intellectual and managerial measures that should be used to define quality charter schools.Thanks to donors, the website GreatSchools.org provides information on the quality of thousands of schools (district, charter, religious, private alike) on an easily used, ad-supported site.
work of the consortium to the next level by providing assistance to partners needing to adapt the standards to particular populations (like special‑needs schools). NACSA has also been heavily involved in defining quality when it comes to the process of charter school authorizing itself. Every year, the group publishes updated standards for what a good charter school authorizer should look for, centered around three core principles: maintaining high standards, upholding school autonomy, and protecting student and public interests. This material is available at qualitycharters.org.
The Walton Family Foundation provided funds to help NACSA focus its membership on taking action once these quality standards are in place. Guidelines were created on the specifics of how poor and mediocre charter schools can either be improved, transferred to new management, or shut down. After all, standards are only relevant if there are consequential actions when they are breached.
Donors who fund schools directly must have their own basic tests of what constitutes an excellent institution. Some apply the rule of thumb that a very good school should average 1.5 years of learning growth in one school year when its students take annual assessments. It is not uncommon for top charters to test out at that exemplary level (see “What exactly does the latest research say about charter quality?” on page 65).
The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has labored to establish detailed quality definitions for use in its own charter school grantmaking. The foundation offers what it calls performance‑management grants to help schools collect detailed data on how well they are hitting their targets. The foundation’s “Ed‑Fi” software platform pulls together in one place all of the statistics on a particular school’s performance, standardizes them for comparison to other institutions, then puts the results on a website available not only to the foundation but also to teachers and leaders at its recipient schools so they can use the information in their decisionmaking
Results can be aggregated for a whole city, or for other schools in different cities but the same management network. The system is designed to be used without needing extra staff, so that even cash‑strapped institutions without an IT department can use it. Dell would like to see Ed‑Fi used widely to “supplement or replace measures used for broader state or federal accountability reporting,” and makes the tool available for all to use with a free license.
Putting money behind report cards
Some donors are investing in third‑party services that shine bright lights on student outcomes—making it easy for any observer to see where children are learning, and where they aren’t. For instance, a number of foundations—Gates, Robertson, Arnold, Walton, Schwab, Packard, Joyce, Kern, Bradley, and others—paid for construction of the website GreatSchools.org, which provides information on the quality of thousands of schools (district, charter, religious, private alike) on an easily used, ad‑supported site. “Families looking for better choices need more of this kind of easily digested information,” suggests Bruno Manno of the Walton Family Foundation. “It would be useful for philanthropists to fund local variants of Great Schools that are even more detailed, to match the needs of today’s kids with the schools that currently exist.”
There are opportunities for funders to contribute to national, state, or local information platforms like these. For example, the Philadelphia School Partnership produces a website and print publication entitled “Great Philly Schools” that provides performance data on every campus in the city—district, charter, parochial, and private. “Parents are hungry for this information,” says Mark Gleason, executive director of the organization. “In less than a year, we’ve had more than 50,000 hits on the Great Philly Schools website, and in three weeks, we exhausted our supply of 45,000 print editions.”
Many states now offer report cards on all of their public schools—including charters—often with philanthropic help. In Connecticut, for example, ConnCAN is a donor‑driven 501(c)(3) with more than a dozen staff that provides parents and interested citizens with individual school profiles (at reportcards.conncan.org), along with research on education reform, aids to school advocacy, and lots of energy on behalf of school excellence. A mix of 156 individual donors and 27 foundations or corporations (including the Robertson, William E. Simon, Steven and Alexandra Cohen, and Bodman foundations) funded the center in its latest year.
In addition to supporting efforts that rate individual schools, donors can create and share information on how charter schools are performing as a sector. The Boston Foundation made a strategic investment a few years ago in a 2009 study, and then a 2010 update, in which scholars from Harvard, MIT, Michigan, and Duke universities compared student achievement at charter schools in Boston with the city’s other public schools. These found that the charter schools perform significantly better. The study was carefully designed to factor out or equalize influences like student background and parental motivation, so its results made quite an impression.
At about the same time, a clutch of donors banded together to commission some bold charter school research covering the nation as a whole, along with communications mechanisms to transmit the findings to interested parties. The Achelis & Bodman Foundations, the Heinz Endowments, the Rodel Charitable Trust, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Daniels Fund, the Fisher Fund, the Fordham Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation provided funds which allowed the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education to create a string of publications. CRPE’s landmark 2011 study The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement had pulled together the whole charter school literature to that point and conducted sophisticated data analysis. The overall finding was that charter schools were outperforming conventional public schools with similar student bodies, and outpacing other popular school reforms like reducing class size.
Many smart donors helped the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools create, throughout a decade, a more‑or‑less annual report called Measuring Charter Performance, which summarized what hundreds of academic studies were finding about the effects of charter schools. In April 2013, the Alliance created a more succinct and easier‑to‑digest summary—still drawing from the best recent research studies, but aimed at a wider audience—entitled Public Charter School Success. It gathers together much striking evidence that charter schools are having good outcomes. Funding was provided by prominent ed‑reform philanthropists, including the Fisher Fund, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Arnold, Gates, Kauffman, Kern, Robertson, Schwab, Simon, and Walton foundations.
What exactly does the latest research say about charter quality?
The Robertson Foundation, established by financier Julian Robertson and family, has helped tighten quality within the charter school universe by paying for careful evaluations. They funded the 2013 CREDO study (summarized in Chapter 1, and further discussed later in this chapter) that has been so important in helping observers understand which charter schools are succeeding.
Additional funding from Robertson plus money from the Fairbanks and Smith Richardson foundations and others allowed the CREDO researchers to go beyond their national summary and produce region‑specific analyses of charter school performance. During 2012 and 2013, they conducted quality studies in five states. The findings are helping local donors (of which the Robertson Foundation is one—they helped build the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, and have supported the expansion of excellent charter schools within that city) refine the performance of their surrounding charters.
The CREDO regional results suggest how high the bar has risen in the charter sector.
- In Massachusetts, the typical charter school student now absorbs the equivalent of two and a half extra months of math learning every year compared to peers in public schools, and one and a half extra months in reading. This advantage was even larger at big city schools. In Boston, charter students surpassed conventional school students by the equivalent of 13 months of additional learning per year in math, and 12 additional months in reading. In other words, by the time regular public school kids learned one year of material, the charter pupils had absorbed about two years worth of knowledge. Fully 83 percent of all Boston charter schools showed bigger learning gains than their district school counterparts. Not one single Boston charter school was found to have significantly lower than average learning gains.
- In Michigan, the Stanford researchers found, a typical charter school student gained an extra two months of learning in both math and reading over the course of a school year, compared to regular public school children. Here again, the advantage was especially pronounced within urban areas, where charter kids gained nearly three months of extra achievement. In math, 42 percent of Michigan charter schools outperformed their district school counterparts, with only 6 percent performing worse. In reading, 35 percent exceeded district schools, while 2 percent lagged.
- The same investigation in New York City found charter school students outstripping others by five months of extra learning per year in math, and one extra month in reading.
- Indiana students absorbed an extra month and a half of learning per year in both math and reading.
- And in New Jersey, charter students gained three extra months of learning in math, and two extra months in reading, each school year. The big‑city effect was again present: in Newark, charter students gained an additional nine months per year in math, and seven and a half months in reading.
ducted by the State Department of Education. It found that charter schools had a higher percentage of students scoring at grade level or better in the annual statewide math and reading tests. In addition, the statewide achievement lags of African‑American, Hispanic, other non‑English speakers, and low‑income students were reduced in charter schools.
A major study of results in the charter schools operated all across the nation by KIPP (by far today’s largest nonprofit charter school operator) was also released in 2013. This again was a high‑quality investigation, conducted by social scientists at Mathematica Policy Research. The findings:
- In math, a typical student who spends three years in a KIPP charter school will absorb 11 months of extra learning compared to where he or she would have ended up without KIPP
- In reading, the average result was eight additional months of learnin
- In science, KIPP schools produced the equivalent of 14 months of extra learning
- In social studies, the KIPP bonus was 11 months’ worth of learning
The common perception that charter schools produce results not much different from conventional schools is an inaccuracy based on old research, describing the earliest charter schools rather than the more evolved and much more effective schools that are now being replicated in large number. The research summary in 2013’s Public Charter School Success encapsulates the most recent academic findings this way:
Three national studies and ten studies from major regions across the country since 2010 found positive academic performance results for students in public charter schools compared to their traditional public school peers.... As the public charter sector matures, charter school leaders...are increasingly focusing their attention on school quality. The achievement studies suggest that the focus on quality is producing results.
Publicizing up‑to‑date performance research is one way donors could bring more clarity and discerning action to the question of charter quality
Closure: The case for pruning the charter school orchard
“While many success stories reveal the potential of high‑quality charter schools, there are also plenty of poorly performing charters. It is important that those schools be closed,” states Kevin Hall of the Charter School Growth Fund without hedging. “That protects the integrity of the charter school proposition: increased flexibility in exchange for performance accountability.”
Barbara Hyde, who has been a major funder of successful charter schools in Memphis, Tennessee, and elsewhere, insists that “we philanthropists have an obligation to model for districts what districts don’t do—and that is close down schools that aren’t performing. The charter school movement needs to be quick in identifying schools that are the lowest performing, intervene when we can, but then shut them down if there’s no improvement. Because that’s what the public schools need to learn to do. If we can’t model that ourselves, then we’re not teaching the systems what they need to learn.”
Don’t assume that school users will automatically recognize and foreclose on lagging academic quality. Lots of things go into a family’s choice of schools. Safety, convenience of location, shiny facilities, neighborhood familiarity, sports, and other factors can sometimes mask poor academic results. In some ways it’s natural for children and families to become complacent about a school once they have settled into it. The personnel and routines become comfortable. You lose any sense of what other students in other places are learning, and how you might rank.
And of course any school change can seem scary or disruptive, so inertia often favors the status quo. Even if you develop a suspicion that your local school is not delivering as it should, the prospect of seeing teachers let go, or a principal turned over, or even maybe having the facility shut down, can leave some parents more worried about disruptions than excited about new possibilities. Even the friskiest aspirations to seek a better education can be damped by the possibility of a new bus trip across town, a substantial expenditure of cash, or a wrenching home move. No wonder there is often a tendency to turn a blind eye when schools disappoint academically.
Conventional public schools are almost impossible to shut down, repopulate with fresh teachers, or reorient in any fundamental way, so they almost demand fatalistic acceptance. But why should the stakeholders in charter schools accept mediocre and sclerotic performance? The whole charter ethic—extra freedom in exchange for extra performance—argues that when a weak performer appears, it should be energetically amended, and eventually lose its license if that doesn’t help. The question is whether authorizers will be willing to drop the hammer, and whether donors, parents, and other interested parties will help them make the tough choices.
In the 2012‑2013 school year, there were 561 new charter schools opened. In the same year, 206 were closed down (out of a national total of 6,004 charter schools). Closures are not the only form of discipline in the system—other low‑quality schools were required to merge or reorganize. Nonetheless, that 3 percent annual rate of turning out the lights on laggards is probably not enough.
The landmark Stanford CREDO study of charter school quality offers interesting discussion on the closing of low‑performing schools as a strategy for improving overall quality. The researchers include five possible “closure scenarios” in their report. The mildest option involves shutting down schools that don’t produce a minimum level of academic growth among their students; this would axe about 170 existing charter schools nationwide. Another of the CREDO scenarios would shut down the lowest 10 percent of all charter schools by average achievement level. That would mean closing about 680 schools. Their high‑end possibility would be to pull charters from schools that shows less academic growth than some traditional public school in its local area—this would eliminate about 1,700 schools.
There would obviously be dislocations involved in closing schools like this, but “closure” doesn’t have to mean the school gets padlocked or students stranded. Typically, pupils are redirected to a better‑performing school nearby. Sometimes new operators take over the existing building and student body. The management and instructional team get closed down, but a range of transition options exists.The whole charter ethic—extra freedom in exchange for extra performance—argues that when a weak performer appears, it should be energetically amended.
The Stanford study shows, however, that shutting down the sector’s weak performers in any of these ways would have clear and immediate positive results. It would raise the achievement of U.S. students, and improve the net effectiveness of charter schools. The more bottom‑dwellers that get replaced with an average or better charter, the more positive the effect on total student achievement.
A 2013 analysis by the Fordham Institute and Public Impact showed that strategic closures could bring dramatic improvement to the charter sector. The study included a simulation of the impact of closing the lowest‑performing 10 percent of charter schools in five select cities, while replicating the top performers in those cities by an equal percentage. The simulation for Cleveland, for example, found that this approach would lead to charter schools in the city substantially outperforming their district peers. In fact, within five years of such a strategic pruning, the performance of inner‑city students in Cleveland charters would match the average achievement of all students in the state of Ohio (there is currently no place in America where inner‑city students exceed statewide performance averages).
Unsentimentally closing low‑performing charters and shifting their students to high performers of the type we now know how to replicate would bring dramatic payoffs. For that reason, the nonprofit that represents charter granting entities—the National Association of Charter School Authorizers—is now on record in support of tough closure rates. NACSA has suggested that shuttering 1,000 of the nation’s poorest performing charters would be good for the charter school movement and students alike.
A school closure strategy that would dramatically improve any city
Of course, shuttering several thousand of the poorest performing conventional public schools would also be great for the nation, but the lack of any accountability mechanism for those campuses lets them fumble along indefinitely. Neerav Kingsland, one of the chief architects of the charter school revolution in New Orleans, has a crisp strategy for deploying closure to improve public education generally. By following the same plan he is pursuing in New Orleans (with widespread donor support), any city can raise its average student achievement while simultaneously building a high‑quality charter network.
Every year, Kingsland suggests, education authorities should shut down the weakest 5 percent of schools in their city. Whether they are conventional schools or charter schools doesn’t matter—whichever schools do least to raise the performance of their pupils should get axed. Simultaneously, new charters should be offered to a sufficient number of quality operators to replace the seats eliminated. Any city that followed this strategy over a five‑year period would thus replace the wobbliest 25 percent of its campuses with higher‑performing institutions, while building a solid critical mass of effective charter schools.
To give you a sense of what this would require as a practical matter, a large city like Chicago would need to close about 34 weak schools every year, and then replace them with 34 carefully chartered new schools. A smaller city like Newark would have to close and replace four poor schools each year. Is this doable?
Yes, says Kingsland. First you build a state or local accountability system that allows schools to be compared on an apples‑to‑apples basis, so the bottom 5 percent can be clearly identified. Then, he suggests, create a new nonprofit or government entity with authority to take over the failing schools and close them, while authorizing new charter schools to take their places. “This will give you the pressure and cover you need to be aggressive,” he counsels local school reformers. And the end result? Citywide academic performance will rise crisply, and students will be much better served.
Even cities too disorganized or divided to close down their low‑quality conventional schools as Kingsland suggests should at least be sure they annually pare out their weak charter schools. The fact that charters have a regular, built‑in thumbs‑up or thumbs‑down renewal process is one of their great advantages. Failing to bravely exercise the option would undercut one of the biggest advantages charter schools offer a community.
The record on this front has been uneven in recent years. According to one NACSA study, more than 12 percent of all charter schools that came up for renewal back in the 2008‑2009 school year were denied a fresh authorization. More recently, that figure fell to 6 percent.
One might argue that this decline partly reflects the fact that fewer weak new schools are coming on line as the charter sector matures. Ten years ago, fully two thirds of all applications for new charters were approved. Today, scrutiny is tighter, and only about one third of all applications get approved. The largest number of new charter schools opening these days are replications of clearly successful “franchises” like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, YES Prep, Green Dot, Great Hearts, BASIS, Rocketship, and so forth, almost all of which will produce strong results for their students.
But there remains a powerful argument for shutting down existing mediocrities. Remember that one of the more fascinating findings in Stanford’s CREDO study was that overall student results in the charter sector are improving not because existing schools are getting dramatically better, but because 1) more and more of the proven high‑performing schools are being opened every year, and 2) underperforming schools are being shut down. While the 2009 version of the CREDO study found charter schools as a group performing slightly below other schools, the 2013 update found charter schools as a group had moved above their competitors in test results. And a major factor driving this shift up the performance curve was the fact that 8 percent of the schools that were underperforming in 2009 got closed down by authorizers.
This suggests that philanthropists should exercise a tough love in their giving, and encourage their area’s state and city authorizers to be equally serious. We now know the importance of intervening quickly in schools that disappoint in their early years. The CREDO research demonstrates that 80 percent of schools that are low‑performing during their first year are still low‑performing five years later. (Meanwhile, 94 percent of the schools that start out great in their first year remain great.) The data say that a school which begins with an ineffective formula is highly unlikely to improve, so delaying interventions and then sanctions only penalizes the enrolled children.
“Holding high standards will be essential to achieving success as charter schools grow,” says Janet Mountain, executive director of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “If we pursue growth without penalizing disappointing results, the kind of sclerosis, bureaucracy, and declining academic results we see in other parts of public schooling will be a risk.”
Jed Wallace of the California Charter School Association underlines the point. “We need significantly better learning opportunities than are available within conventional schools. That means not only supporting the growth of high‑performing charter schools, but also shining a light on those that are not providing good quality. In doing so we reaffirm the accountability that parents and the public wish to see in place for all public schools.”Philanthropists should exercise a tough love in their giving, and encourage their area’s authorizers to be equally serious in dealing with disappointing schools.
Lessons from a funder turned authorizer
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation was an early and enthusiastic backer of charter schools, and remains one to this day. In 2005, it took its support in a new direction. Fordham became a licensed charter school authorizer in the state of Ohio, responsible for approving and then assuring the quality of the charter schools under its jurisdiction. Here is Fordham president Chester Finn’s summary of what his foundation learned by assuming an inside position in the authorization process:
Like many sponsors, we inherited a bevy of already established charters. Without us, they would have been orphaned—and maybe died. We thought we scrutinized these charter schools carefully before taking them on, but we weren’t careful enough. We didn’t appreciate the extent to which they would arrive with their own idiosyncrasies, bad habits, and settled governance and staffing arrangements. Sometimes these proved to be strengths, but too often turned out to be frailties.
Though we’ve wanted to open new schools, we labor under state‑imposed “caps” that make it exceedingly difficult. Worse, our state’s school‑funding structure makes it hard for charter operators to make ends meet. And the charter program in Ohio has been under constant attack by critics. When they fail with the legislature, they turn to the courts, the media, local government—anything they can do to create hassles for authorizers and charter schools.
A lot of time and effort has had to be spent on complying with authorizer requirements (processing forms, making reports, etc.) while also making sure our schools fulfill innumerable laws and regulations. Ohio’s charter laws resemble an archeological dig in Jericho, with layer upon layer of frequently conflicting rules, expectations, and procedures. Many dollars have been spent on attorney fees.
With more than 60 authorizers in Ohio, there are some perverse incentives for schools to seek out the sponsor that will create the fewest hassles and charge the lowest fees. Though we could be “fired” by the Ohio Department of Education, many other authorizers have a statutory “right,” grandfathered in legislation, to sponsor schools indefinitely, be those schools good, bad, or indifferent.
One of the most useful things an authorizer can do is to close an ineffective school and replace it with a better one. In 2013, about 35,000 charter students in Ohio attended charter schools that got Ds or Fs from the state on achievement and growth. My ballpark estimate is that a quarter to a third of all charter students in our state are attending schools that cannot be justified. (Of course the same is true of many district schools.)
It is, however, often vexing and difficult to carry off a closure. Some schools that face closure are run by earnest, decent people for incredibly needy kids in areas where the other schools are awful. The two schools where we faced closing were really inadequate, yet nevertheless the best in their neighborhood! They didn’t meet our standards, and we were repeatedly investing time and money in trying to get the people running them to function better. We failed over and over.
The doctrine says close that school. But the reality is it can be hard. At least the school is safe; the students are learning a little. Closing the doors could put 322 kids in worse schools, at least in the short term. Closure is also a political problem with the community. In the end, we terminated our authorizing relationship with those two schools, because they couldn’t meet our standards. But another authorizer picked up overseeing them, and they didn’t close.
One thing we and other authorizers would welcome help with is an impartial, external review when a decision has to be made about closing a school. We’d love to bring in a dispassionate team of experts to spend a few days going over the school with a fine‑tooth comb. That can easily be a $10,000 or $20,000 investment, which many authorizers can’t afford. Yet it would really help in cases where dramatic intervention is being considered.
The first thing to do would be a diagnostic, “Can this school be cured?” If a school is really misfiring, there is cover for action. This is something funders could help excellent authorizers do.
Fresh eyes can be valuable not just for overall judgment, but also for technical assistance. The site‑visit team might help the school find a consultant. Help them outsource their back office if it’s the business management that’s bad. Help them find a curriculum expert if that’s screwed up. Help them with staff development.
But almost all these things cost money. Philanthropic dollars could jump start some authorizers to the next level by giving them the kind of capacities I’ve just described.
Donors should also make sure that when new authorizers are set up they get strong capabilities from the beginning. I believe when Colorado finally established a statewide authorizer, the legislature initially didn’t appropriate a single dollar to pay for it. So for the first year or two philanthropy got them on their feet.