Closing failing charter schools reinforces accountability

By Charles Sahm |  

February 21, 2016 |  

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. (Rob Bennett / Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

Earlier this month, the New York City Department of Education announced that it was closing three charter schools. As a policy analyst who believes that charters continue to play a crucial role in improving public education, I’d like to offer these words to Chancellor Carmen Fariña: Thank you.

It may seem counterintuitive for a pro-charter researcher to be congratulating the city for closing three charter schools, but closing bad schools actually reinforces the basic concept of the charter movement: autonomy in exchange for accountability.

Charters are public schools created on the basis of a contract, or "charter," between an authorizer and operator who wants to establish a school. In exchange for autonomy from many district regulations, school operators agree to be held accountable for results. Charter agreements in New York run for five years. If schools are not meeting achievement goals, their authorizer can decide to not renew their charter or only provisionally renew it for two or three years. Charters can also be revoked if schools are deemed to be unsafe or dysfunctional.

From the early 2000s, when the first charter schools opened in New York State, through 2015, about 25 charter schools – or 10 percent of the 250 charter schools currently in operation across the state – had their charters revoked or not renewed by their authorizers. (There are basically two charter authorizers in New York State– SUNY and the Board of Regents. The city’s Department of Education used to authorize charters, but no longer does.)

The city’s non-renewal of the three struggling schools’ charters raises some interesting issues. First, two of the three schools have unionized teaching staffs. The city also moved to close two low-performing charters last year, one of which was a union school. So three of the five charters the de Blasio administration has sought to close were union schools, even though only one in ten charters in the city is unionized. Another school, the UFT Charter School, which was started as a union-run charter school model, closed its elementary and middle schools at the end of the last school year due to their low performance. Its high school remains open on a probationary charter renewal.

Evidence seems to indicate that it’s difficult for charters with a unionized teaching staff to get the same results as non-union charters. A few years ago, esteemed Harvard researcher Roland Fryer published a report that attempted to identify the characteristics of successful charter schools in New York City. He came up with five basic tenets: frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, frequent and high-quality tutoring, an extended school day and year and a culture of high expectations. 

But these tenets have proven difficult to achieve within the strictures of the union contract, which is a shame because it was the famous teachers’ union leader Al Shanker who was an early proponent of charter schools and saw them as an opportunity for unions to embrace reform.

The Department of Education’s closure of these five charters over the past two years also highlights an irony: the de Blasio administration has been extremely reluctant to close district schools but has been willing to hold charter schools accountable for results.

During the Bloomberg administration, 164 schools were closed for poor performance. Mayor de Blasio and others have suggested that the Bloomberg administration focused too much on shuttering bad schools, rather than improving them. But unlike other cities with declining student populations, New York never really “closed” any schools. Failing schools were reconfigured with new names, new teachers, and new leadership. Large schools were broken into a few small schools designed to support struggling students and organized around a unifying theme. Rather than do minor restructurings, which research shows rarely works, the Bloomberg administration attempted to give these schools and their students a fresh start. It didn’t always work – many of the new schools have struggled and some were subsequently closed again – but a growing body of research indicates that it did yield some major successes.

A fascinating study released last year by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University tracked the students who would have attended the shuttered schools and found that the closure of failing high schools led to markedly better outcomes for those students. Other studies by research group MDRC have also found that students attending the many smaller high-schools created by the Bloomberg administration were more likely to graduate on time than students at other schools.

In announcing the closure of the three city-authorized charter schools last week, Chancellor Fariña stated that “each of these schools were given clear conditions with benchmarks for performance, and they failed to meet them.” She noted that, “It doesn’t matter whether students attend a charter public school or a district public school – we’re we’re committed to giving every child a path to success.” Amen. Let’s hold all schools accountable for results, be they district or charter.

Charles Sahm is the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.

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