Why California must lead the way in closing underperforming charter schools

Jed Wallace / commentaryJanuary 1, 2013Jed WallaceMany of California’s charter schools are among the best public schools in the state, if not the nation, but some are also among the worst. It is time for the charter community to fix the failings in the sector so that more children have the chance to attend a great school.
The second state in the nation to allow charter schools, California has long been at the forefront of education reform. We must also lead the way in accountability, which is why the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) is proud to support the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) “One Million Lives” campaign, which kicked off in November. NACSA’s goal is to give one million children access to high-quality schools by encouraging effective charter authorizing, growing the number of high-quality charters across the country and closing those charters that are failing.
NACSA has called for:
All states to establish clear charter school performance expectations and close those schools that do not meet the standards.
Implement new laws to hold charter authorizers accountable for the schools they approve. Those that keep failing schools open will lose the ability to authorize schools.
Urge each state to create a statewide authorizer that will implement professional practices based on high standards and promote quality growth.
The fundamental premise of charter schools is more autonomy and flexibility in exchange for greater accountability. We are all collectively responsible for making sure that schools are truly held accountable for serving students well—charter authorizers, government officials, policymakers, parents and charter school leaders.
At the 20th anniversary of charter schools in California, this is the perfect moment not only to celebrate the positive impact charter schools have had on thousands of children, but to reflect on what we must do better. We must tap into the spirit that sparked this movement—our deep conviction that all children can achieve at high levels and deserve a high-quality education.
Last year, for the first time, CCSA publicly called for the non-renewal of 10 chronically underperforming charter schools. It may seem surprising that a membership and professional organization would call for the closure of some of its own members. However, we believe that the charter school community should lead the way on accountability and that CCSA is uniquely positioned to do so. Our public call is built on years of work behind the scenes with our members to find the best ways to assess and evaluate school performance.
The CCSA Accountability Framework guides CCSA’s efforts to raise accountability standards in a way that values academic rigor while also giving schools credit for growth and for taking on the challenge of serving traditionally disadvantaged students well. A key component is our Similar Students Measure, which looks at how schools perform compared to schools serving similar student populations across the state, as a way to hone in on the value added by schools. We found charter schools of all types were broadly distributed across the continuum of performance and that these metrics did not unduly penalize schools serving disadvantaged students.
In order to meet the CCSA Minimum Criteria for Renewal, charter schools four years and older must meet at least one of the following criteria:
Academic Performance Index (API) score of at least 700 in the most recent year, or
Three-year cumulative API growth of at least 50 points, or
Ranked “within” or “above” for at least two out of the last three years on CCSA’s Similar Students Measure.
Ultimately, it is authorizers—local school districts, county offices of education or the State Board of Education—that make the decision on whether a charter school will continue to operate.
To date, four of the schools on our list have closed—two voluntarily. In three school districts, the boards of education conditionally approved the charter schools, setting specific academic targets that, if not met, will result in automatic revocations. In San Francisco Unified, Center Joint Unified and Antelope Valley Union High, the board chose simply to renew the charter schools. Absent clearer guidelines/requirements governing renewal expectations, local political pressure can trump student performance outcomes as evidenced by these decisions to renew significantly low-performing schools unconditionally.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy to lead the way—but students deserve no less.
California charter schools have tremendous momentum, with 109 new schools opening this school year as parents and communities across the state turn to charter schools in ever-greater numbers.
We are tremendously excited about the growth of charter schools and support the growth and replication of California’s highest-performing charter schools. However, we cannot truly have the impact charters were intended to have—to reinvent public education—if we do not close those charters that have demonstrated an inability to meet the challenge of excellence and chronically underperform.
We have seen the power of great charter schools to transform the lives of children. But too many students are still not receiving the education they deserve. We did not start this movement to create more underperforming schools. For charters to succeed in improving public education, accountability must go from rhetoric to reality.
Jed Wallace is president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, a membership and professional organization supporting the state’s 982 charter schools. He began his career in public education as a teacher at Hooper Avenue Elementary School, a 2,000-student school in South-Central Los Angeles, where he established a successful school-within-the-school that became the basis for an effort to convert Hooper Avenue to charter status. He later worked in the Office of the Superintendent at San Diego City Schools and then served as the chief operating officer of High Tech High charter school before joining CCSA.
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