One in Five Charter Schools Is Bad Enough to Close

As many as one in five U.S. charter schools should be shut down because of poor academic performance, according to a group representing states, districts and universities that grant them permission to operate.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers said 900 to 1,300 of the privately run, publicly financed schools should close because they are in the bottom 15 percent of public schools in their states. The Chicago-based group’s members -- such as the Los Angeles Unified School District and the State University of New York -- oversee more than half of the nation’s 5,600 charter schools.

The announcement represents a challenge to the fast-growing charter-school movement, created as an alternative to conventional districts and operating without many of their rules. To hold the organizations accountable, states must pass new laws that would shut down poor performers, said Greg Richmond, president of the charter-school organization.

“For all the excellent charter schools, there are also many not serving students well,” Richmond said from Washington in a briefing with reporters. “That’s unacceptable.”

The call for closing poor-performers carries special weight because it comes from an organization funded by charter-school advocates such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

School Closures

For now, it’s rare for charter schools to close; 150 shut down last year, often because of low enrollment, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

New laws to close poorly performing charters need to give operators two or three years to succeed and should apply also to traditional public schools, Nina Rees, the charter-school alliance’s president, said in a telephone interview. An evaluation of charter-school performance must also take into account whether nearby traditional schools are struggling, too, she said.

About 2 million children, who make up 4 percent of public-school enrollment, attend U.S. charter schools, more than three times the number 10 years ago, according to the alliance.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans turned to charter schools to overhaul public education. The schools now enroll three-quarters of the city’s students, a larger share than in any other U.S. district, according to the alliance. Charter schools in Detroit and Washington educate more than 40 percent of students.

Charter Performance

A 2010 survey by the consulting company Mathematica Policy Research compared students enrolled at charters with those who applied but weren’t admitted. It found that performance was similar in reading and in math, though there were wide variations across schools. A 2009 Stanford University study found that charter students fared worse.

Poor and low-achieving students at charters showed significant gains over peers at traditional public schools, the Mathematica study found. Charters in large urban areas helped students’ math achievement. Outside those regions, they had a negative effect.

In California, more students are being educated in the best charter schools than in those that should be closed, Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association, said at the briefing.

Today’s announcement follows debate about whether charter schools are weakening the finances of traditional districts, siphoning off students from the most committed families, promoting racial and economic segregation in public education and failing to provide equal access to students with disabilities.

The authorizers’ group is trying to police against practices that weed out lower-performing students, which can also make charter school achievement look better than it is, according to Christopher Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education.

“We want to know if games are being played,” he said.

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