DURHAM – Public charter school authorizers need to close more failing schools while opening great ones.
That’s the call issued this week by the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which kicked off its “One Million Lives” campaign to promote educational innovation.
Greg Richmond, president and CEO of NACSA, wants states to toughen laws that manage charter schools.
The association’s analysis suggests that 900 to 1,300 charter schools across the country are academically performing within the lowest 15 percent of schools.
“We think our ‘bottom 15 percent’ criteria is an appropriate yardstick,” Richmond said. “It’s a very low bar and schools performing that low are not preparing their students to succeed in college and in life.”
Alex Medler, NACSA’s vice president of policy and advocacy, didn’t spotlight any particular North Carolina charter schools that raised concerns. However, he found that although the state’s legislation governing charter schools provided some oversight and accountability, it could be stronger.
In Ohio, for example, if a charter school gets a low-performing grade, it would be forced to close. In Florida, the state government must vote to close a charter school and can do so if a school rates an F for two consecutive years.
Charter schools in North Carolina that don’t attain a 60 percent performance composite or fail to meet expected growth in any two out of three consecutive years are deemed “academically inadequate.”
“If a school receives that designation, revocation of the charter is to be initiated, unless the school is within its first five years of operation, at which point they must prepare a plan to the state Board of Education to receive an additional year,” said Joel Medley, director of North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools.
“Most states have almost nothing,” said NACSA’s Medler. “The fact that North Carolina has something is a good thing. Better than not having it in there. It’s good that they have language speaking to that, but it falls short.”
North Carolina would also benefit from an independent statewide authorizing board for charter schools, Medler said, rather than the state’s Board of Education.
“We prefer a statewide independent charter board,” he said. State governments “can do a good job, but can’t do the performance monitoring very well and have their own politics.”
Medler also worried about the lack of full-time professional staff to provide oversight for North Carolina’s 107 public charter schools. The state approved 25 more charter schools to open next year. Right now, those schools are monitored by Medley and a handful of part-time workers, who also must help field proposals for the next batch of potential charter schools.
States frequently understaff these offices, Medler said. “They treat it like a grant program with 100 grant recipients.”
The bureaucracy doesn’t need to be as large as a traditional school district’s central office, he said, but it needs an executive director, someone handling finance, a reporting administrator and legal counsel, among other positions.
“It’s not a big bureaucracy, not the same as a district, but it takes adequate resources,” Medler said.
Since 1997, seven public charter schools in Durham and Orange counties have either relinquished their charters or had them revoked by the state, mostly due to inadequate planning or low enrollment. Last year, the state revoked its first charter for academic reasons, in western North Carolina, Medley said.
That’s also when the state eliminated the cap on charter schools, opening the door for more than 60 applicants and approving 25 of those this summer, including a new one for Durham – The Institute for the Development of Young Leaders. That will make 10 charter schools in Durham alone.
Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, agrees with NACSA’s worries about quality and oversight.
“I think those are concerns that would be shared by the Durham community and taxpayers,” Beyer said. “We want to make sure there is excellent oversight and strong transparency about school operations. Well-meaning people try to start these schools, but it is a challenging and complex endeavor to run a high-quality school, especially for serving children of high poverty.”
However, she would rather see Durham have more control over its destiny when it comes to charter schools, preferring local oversight to a statewide independent board as proposed by Medler.
“Education is local,” Beyer said. “Local oversight makes the most sense. By doing that, a charter school could become more like a magnet school in the district.”
Medler noted that if oversight was broken into smaller districts, the system would run the risk of uneven management. One district might be great at controlling quality among charter schools, while another slacked, he said. So, while bad schools might be driven from a good district, they would just go to one with poorer oversight.
“That wouldn’t be good for the children we want to educate,” he said.
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