Public charter schools that fail should close

I am a public charter school professional. For 12 years in Ohio I worked for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation as a charter school authorizer, policy advocate, chronicler and funder of public charter schools. In Idaho, since 2013 I have worked as a funder, technical assistance provider, and advocate for public charter schools in my role as CEO of the education nonprofit Bluum. I also serve as board chair of the Idaho Charter School Network. As a parent, my two daughters attended a public charter school.

Terry Ryan

In these roles, and over the years, I have been fortunate to meet some of the best charter operators and educators in America. More than a few of these individuals run charter schools right here in Idaho. But, like in all manner of human endeavor where public dollars are involved, I have also met my share of charter school bunglers, charlatans and crooks. I’ve seen these individuals bring down schools, hurt families and children by disrupting their education, trigger anti-charter school legislation, and even go to jail.

For public charter schools to work well across a state they need to be held accountable for their performance. Unlike traditional public schools, charters are not supposed to stay open for perpetuity even if they are failing academically, financially and operationally. The big idea behind charter schools is that in exchange for accountability for performance, charters are given operational flexibilities and the right to be different in uses of money, time, technology and non-traditionally certified staffing. For a charter school sector to work for all children, truly broken charter schools need to be non-renewed or closed.

The responsibility for closing broken charter schools falls to charter school authorizers. Authorizers are the entity that approve and determine on the basis of performance, whether to extend or terminate the performance certificate of a school to operate. We know from research across the country that, “student achievement improves when authorizers are rigorous in determining who should get charters, monitoring schools’ performance, holding them accountable for results, and closing those that fail.”[1] Closing a public charter schools is hard. I have done it. Looking educators and parents in the eyes and explaining why their school must close is the hardest thing I have done in my professional life.

In Idaho, this responsibility for overseeing most of the state’s public charter schools falls to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission (PCSC). They authorize 73 percent of the state’s 56 charter schools. A solid majority of the schools they authorize are high-performing and deliver for families and children. The PCSC has created and negotiated with its public charter schools rigorous performance certificates that spell out performance expectations for its schools and “the basis for renewal of charters.”

In recent weeks, the PCSC has been raising alarm bells about three charter schools that are struggling to deliver results for their students and to make their finances work. The Idaho Ed News has covered closely the happenings at both two Blackfoot Charter Schools and the Village Charter School in Boise. In reading these stories and paying attention to what has been happening, it is clear to this observer that the Idaho Public Charter School Commission is doing its job. They are working to hold these schools accountable for what the schools promised to deliver in their performance certificates (which are effectively contracts), and they are being transparent in their processes. They have put the schools on notice.

The Village Charter School in particular has demonstrated little evidence of improvement since at least 2016 (see Tables 1 and 2 below). Worse, the company the Village board hired to turn the school around – Veritas Charter School Services LLC – was recently fired after it was discovered the employee hired to work with the Village had admitted to breaking state ethics laws in South Carolina.

 

Table 1: Data for the Village Charter School over the Last three Years

Academic Operational Financial Result
2015-2016 N/A Remediation Critical Failed (2)(b)
2016-2017 Remediation Good Standing Critical Failed (2)(b)
2017-2018 Remediation Good Standing Critical Failed (2)(b)

 

Table 2: Financial Metrics

Cash > 60 Days DSCR > 1.2 (positive) Result
2015-2016 Zero days cash Negative 0.54 Failed (2)(d)
2016-2017 0.74 days cash (less than 1) Negative 1.40 Failed (2)(d)
2017-2018 1.4 days cash Negative 0.13 Failed (2)(d)

** Source for both tables above: Public Charter School Annual Reports for The Village Charter School.

 

Charter schools that fail over several years should be closed. Charter school authorizers are the entities responsible for making such determinations. Closing a public charter school is hard and should never be done lightly or without solid evidence to support the decision. But, closing charter schools that fail is important for the overall health of a state’s public charter school sector.

Written by Terry Ryan, the CEO of Bluum and board chair of the Idaho Charter School Network. Bluum and Idaho Education News receive grant funding from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 

[1] Finn, Manno and Wright. Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicament, Paradoxes, Possibilities. Harvard Education Press, 2016, p. 51.

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