No Surprises: How Responsible Governance, Smart Policy and Strong Authorizing Can Prevent Charter School Collapse

No Surprises: How Responsible Governance, Smart Policy and Strong Authorizing Can Prevent Charter School Collapse
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RCEd Commentary

A new school year is under way and hundreds of new charter schools are opening their doors across the country. Many of these schools will dramatically improve their students’ lives after they get off the ground, but too many others are closing before teachers even learn their students’ names, leaving parents scrambling to find alternatives.

To be clear, schools that fail to serve their students should close. Part of the promise of charter schools is that when they fail to live up to their promises, they are shut down. While many charters will thrive, inevitably some will need to close. But not all charter school closures are the same. Many of the schools that have closed over the past month never should have been approved to open in the first place, or the boards of these schools should not have tried to start the new school year. It’s only a month into the new school year, and already charter schools have closed in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania North Carolina, and Ohio.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are steps that charter school leaders, authorizers, and policymakers can take to ensure that bad schools never get approved and that those that do fail are closed with as little disruption as possible. With smart policy, strong authorizing, and responsible governance, many of these closures are preventable. Others can be timed and managed better. To protect families and the public interest the following is required:

Approve Only Strong, Ready Applicants

The first bulwark against midyear closure is a rigorous application process for new schools. A comprehensive charter application review process with a high bar for approval is the critical first step in ensuring only schools likely to succeed academically, financially, and organizationally are granted public funds and permitted to serve children. Authorizers should never feel obliged — either by problematic politics or flawed policy — to approve a new school they fully-expect to fail in the opening weeks.  When that occurs, we should quickly consider what needs to change.

Require Newly Approved Schools to Demonstrate Readiness to Open

Newly approved schools should be required to demonstrate their readiness to open prior to the first day of school. Opening a new school is a complex and arduous undertaking, and even the most qualified and well-prepared applicants can encounter trouble along the way.

Conduct Rigorous Ongoing Oversight and Take Decisive Action

The authorizer’s role in preventing midyear closures doesn’t end after new schools are approved and opened. It extends throughout the charter term. Authorizers need to clearly articulate expectations, and monitor and hold schools accountable for their ongoing performance.

Take Decisive Action

When problems with schools do arise, authorizers need to take quick and decisive action. To prevent schools from collapsing midyear, it is essential that schools that are in distress and demonstrably unable to complete a new school year not be allowed to begin the next year. This means closing schools in distress at the end of the year when distress is apparent (or as soon thereafter as possible), before the new school year, in an orderly and responsible way, and if possible, with enough time for families to seek out other options.

Govern Your School Responsibly

When any endeavor begins to fail, it’s a natural response to try to save it. But when a failing charter school’s governing board ignores the writing on the wall and refuses to accept the consequences of their failure, they cause great harm to the families and public they pledged to serve. Charter school boards have an obligation to act in their students’ and the public’s interest. When trouble is on the horizon, board members must decide whether it makes sense to begin another school year and risk midyear closure or whether it would better serve student and public interests to close gracefully and responsibly at the end of the current year.

Support Responsible Closure with Smart Policy

Policy makers can help by removing barriers to strong authorizing and ensuring that policies don’t produce unintended consequences. Policies should not allow bad schools to open, failing operators to grow, or schools to close suddenly and without adequate planning.

Closures at the start of the school year or in the middle of the semester don’t just happen. They are foreseeable and preventable. To avoid the harm these closures cause, charter leaders, authorizers and policy makers must be willing to act.

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