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How to Close a Charter School: Advice From Three States

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Miami

Opening quality charter schools and closing those that perform poorly is a major theme here at the National Association of Charter School Authorizer's annual leadership conference.

Perhaps that's no surprise considering that authorizers are the groups charged with overseeing charters, and when some of the publicly funded but independently run schools land in local news headlines for poor academic performance or fraud, it can undermine the movement at large.

The sector has long stood by the premise that if schools fail to perform, they are shut down. But closing schools is tough, and doing so requires an artful touch.

During a panel discussion on automatic closure laws—which included Chad Aldis with the Fordham Institute in Ohio, Adam Miller with the Florida Department of Education, and Brandon Brown with the Indianapolis Mayor's charter school office—the panelists discussed how much time a charter should be given to prove itself.

They pointed to data from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which show that if a school is consistently low performing after four years of operating, there's only about a 10 percent chance the school will turn itself around.


Deciding when to shutter a school is perhaps the easy part—execution is a different story. Nobody wants to shut down a school, it's disruptive and emotional for staff, parents and students, but, experts say, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. The panelists, as well as the Fordham Institute's Kathryn Mullen Upton, who I tracked down between sessions for her input, outlined a few best practices on how to minimize the impact:

  • Have a closure protocol in place that includes talking points, template letters and FAQs for parents;
  • Hold school enrollment fairs to help parents find a new school for their children;
  • And, if possible, announce school closures in March or April of the school year, allowing time for school operations to wind down and parents to find a new school, but not too much time.

That last item deserves a bit more of an explanation.

Shutting down a charter in the middle of the year usually sends parents scrambling to find a new school and cause a host of other problems. But if it's announced in September that a school will be shut down in May or June, that can bring on another set of issues. In Ohio, this is referred to as a "zombie year," when teachers and administrators are not invested because they know they're losing their jobs at the end of the school year. In many states, these so-called zombie years are unavoidable based on when state assessment data is released.

But, the panelists said, the best practice of all is to prevent closures with a rigorous charter application process that yields academically high-performing schools.

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