Close all bad schools, not just ones labeled ‘charter’

The main argument that members of the most influential education associations of North Carolina have against lifting the state mandated cap on the number of charter schools is that some of them under-perform. Never mind that despite the under-performance of many public schools, there is not a cap on public schools. This is the basis of an opinion piece by Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation.

Close All Bad Schools, Not Just Ones Labeled ‘Charter’
By Terry Stoops
A recent editorial in one of the state’s largest newspapers proclaimed, “If too many kids aren’t making the grade, neither are the [public charter] schools of which they’re a part, and no one is doing those students a favor to try to keep an underperforming school open.”

The editorial is right.

But we are not doing students a favor by keeping underperforming district schools open, either. It is time for the state to close underperforming public schools — charter and district alike.

The editorial followed the news that the state Office of Charter Schools recommended closing three low-performing charter schools — PreEminent and Torchlight Academy charter schools in Wake County and Provisions Academy charter school in Lee County. The schools’ supporters launched campaigns to buy time for improvement. Still, the evidence suggests that there are good reasons for the state to close these charter schools.

All three appeared to have poor or unstable leadership and failed to provide instruction that met the needs of their students. According to Department of Public Instruction audits and investigations, two of the three schools experienced administrative and fiscal mismanagement.

While closure is a constant threat to public charter schools, even the worst traditional public schools do not face the prospect of closure. It might not be feasible to close traditional public schools permanently. Nevertheless, the state could follow the Louisiana model and allow chronically low-performing district schools to reopen under the management of KIPP, Edison, or another private or charter entity that has a proven record of raising student achievement.

In 2003, the Louisiana legislature passed a law that gives the state authority to take over “academically unacceptable” district schools for at least five years. For this to occur, schools have had to “fail” under the school and district accountability program for four or more school years. The state solicits applications from charter school or independent public school operators, and chooses an operator that will best address the needs of the student population at the failed school.

The converted school is subject to school and district accountability standards and oversight by the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. By most measures, the program has been a success.

A number of district schools in North Carolina have long histories of poor leadership, low-quality instruction, and deplorable student performance. Over the last six years, at least 40 N.C. high schools have failed to meet the low bar of at least 60 percent of their students passing state exams.

For example, since 2000, half of all students at high schools in Halifax, Northampton, and Hertford counties did not pass state standardized tests. A mere one-third of students at one high school in Durham passed state tests last year. One Guilford County high school has had a 21 percent drop in average test scores over the last six years.

State law permits local boards of education to close district schools, although the process is much more extensive than the one required for charter schools. The State Board of Education can choose to terminate or not renew a charter if a school fails to meet at least one of six educational, fiscal, or legal standards outlined in state law. The closure process for district schools requires the school board to conduct a thorough study of affected students’ welfare and conduct a public hearing.

The latter process also should be required of the State Board of Education when it proposes closing a charter school.

Closure is one of many accountability tools, and while never pleasant, it is occasionally necessary. As such, the state should hold all public schools — district and charter — to equal accountability standards.

Terry Stoops, a former public school teacher, is education policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

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