As enrollment in charters schools continues to climb, a national organization is urging state legislators to draw a harder line on setting standards for opening those schools and ensuring that weak ones get shut down.
The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago organization that seeks to improve charters' quality by working with the entities that create and oversee them, announced Wednesday that it is launching what it calls a "One Million Lives" campaign to press for changes in state law that hold charter schools and their authorizers more accountable for performance.
The campaign, unveiled at a press conference in Washington, refers to a goal of getting 1 million additional children into 3,000 high-performing charters schools over the next five years. There are approximately 5,600 charters in the country today, serving more than 2 million children. Charter school enrollment rose by 200,000 students in the last year alone, according to one estimate.
By setting tougher standards for charter schools to open, and remain open, states will set a path for "smarter growth," the association argues, by putting many more high-quality schools in the mix.
By one measure, the number of charter schools going out of business is already on the rise. The rate of charter schools closing during the periods when their contracts are up for renewal has risen recently, from 6 percent in 2010 to nearly 13 percent in 2012, according to the the authorizers' association. (Those numbers have fluctuated over the past few years.) Closures during the renewal process are typically linked to academic performance, the group explained, rather than issues such as lack of enrollment, or financial mismanagement.
But despite those shut-downs, the association says there's substantial evidence that many low-performing charter schools continue to skate by.
According to the organization's analysis, between 900 and 1,300 charter schools across the nation are among the lowest 15 percent of academic performers in their states, as measured by standardized test scores in reading and math.
In too many states, charter school accountability exists "in name only," argued NACSA's president and CEO, Greg Richmond.
In addition, the standards to which charter schools are held vary enormously from state to state. Authorizers often lack clear guidance on how to judge charter schools, and in some cases, their decisions to not approve them, or close them, can be overruled by states or the courts. (See Education Week's story from earlier this year on the hodgepodge of standards for closing charter schools across the states.)
The association is calling for state legislatures to take a number of concrete steps to improve charter school quality. Those include requiring authorizers to meet professional standards for reviewing charters—such as those published by NACSA. States should also set rules for automatically closing charter schools that don't meet multiple standards for academic performance.
Additionally, states should allow authorizers to shut down charter schools that fall short of expectations. As it now stands, NACSA says, many state charter laws require authorizers to renew the contracts of charters that are making "reasonable" progress toward academic, financial or other goals, a standard that the organization says is "too vague, too low, and needs to be raised."
States should set laws that hold authorizers accountable for the quality of charters they oversee, the organization said, and authorizers that don't should be stripped of their powers, according to another recommendation.
It remains to be seen whether state lawmakers take up the cause. Richmond said his organization will circulate model legislation this winter to establish tougher standards, though it will also recommend modifying that language to conform with the charter landscape in each state.
NACSA's efforts are likely to include providing technical assistance to states considering policy changes, circulating written materials and case studies on how those policies should work, and partnering with like-minded groups who help make the case in specific states, said Alex Medler, the organization's vice president for policy and advocacy, in an interview.
And the organization's effort will also have money behind it: NACSA officials said that a number of philanthropic organizations are providing financial support, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. (Gates and Walton, along with other foundations, provide financial support to Education Week.)