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Authorizers Can Still Shut Down Bad Charters, Despite ESEA Waivers, Feds Say

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The Obama administration has issued a policy clarifying that charter school authorizers have the power to shut down low-performing charters, despite the overall freedom from stiff penalties that federal officials have offered states under waivers of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In an addendum released this week to the original waiver guidelines, the U.S. Department of Education said that authorizers' rights to not renew or revoke a charter will overrule any separate process that states awarded waivers establish for dealing with academically low-performing schools.

"A charter school authorizer retains the authority to close a low-performing charter school under the time frames and according to the performance expectations in its charter contract and under state law," says the department's fact sheet, released May 7. The identification of a charter school as a low-performer under a state waiver plan "should not be used as evidence to delay or avoid closure if the school is failing to meet the terms of its charter contract.

The document also gives charters flexibility to develop their own teacher and principal evaluation systems, as long as they adhere to a number of standards.

The Obama administration announced last year that it would offer states waivers from the most onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. States had to agree to adopt college- and career-ready standards, and craft guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation, which were to be linked to gains in student achievement. States were also offered an escape from the law's sanctions for not making yearly academic progress, if they agreed to create new accountability systems, which included plans for improving their lowest-performing schools, called "priority" and "focus" schools. The administration's waiver guidelines said states' plans for turning around the lowest-performing schools should adhere to a number of principles, such as redesigning school schedules and holding administrators and teachers to higher standards for improvement.

Eleven states have been granted waivers from NCLB so far, and an additional 26, plus the District of Columbia, have applied for that flexibility.

The new language describing the waiver rules for charters pleased the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which had voiced concerns that the original NCLB flexibility guidelines would allow continually underachieving charters to avoid closure or other penalties imposed by states, districts, or other entities overseeing those schools.

The concern was that low-performing charter schools could tell authorizers, in effect, "you can't close me," before the timelines described for improving schools in a state's waiver plan played out, said Greg Richmond, the president and chief executive officer of NACSA. His organization believes there are "still too many poor-performing charters, and authorizers need to be closing more of them."

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools had similiar concerns, reasoning that under the waiver process, states "would feel pressure to leave a charter school open," said Todd Ziebarth, a vice president for the organization. The new clarification from the department helps put those fears to rest, both he and Richmond said.

The department's fact sheet also addresses another concern of some charter school advocates: that the NCLB waiver requirements for teacher and principal evaluation would restrict charters' ability to manage their staffs effectively.

The department's new addendum says that states' waiver plans can give charters flexibility to develop evaluation systems that "do not necessarily adhere specifically to the [state's] guidelines," if charters meet a number of requirements. Specifically, states must demonstrate that all their charters are "held to a high standard of accountability through a strong charter school authorizer system." One such standard is that states use student achievement as the most important factor in determining whether to revoke or renew a school's charter.

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