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Talk to Parents Before Closing a Charter School

Note: Our guest-blogger this week will be Max Eden, a senior fellow of education policy at the Manhattan Institute. 

One of the few points of universal agreement in education policy is that bad charter schools should be shuttered. But what exactly is a bad charter school?

A school with meager enrollment that can't make financial ends meet? Yes.

A school that finds itself on, or even near, the wrong side of the law? Absolutely.  

A school with low standardized test scores yet high parent demand? Maybe. Maybe not.

This last question was the subject of a fascinating debate earlier this year at the Fordham Institute's "Flypaper" blog between Fordham's president Michael Petrilli and University of Arkansas professor (and former Manhattan Institute senior fellow) Jay P. Greene.

Greene argued that the predictive power of high-stakes testing is much weaker than many assume  and that parents and students know more than distant regulators give them credit for. Relying solely on test scores would thus lead to some "horrible mistakes." What's more, because regulators often rely on levels rather than gains, a solely test-score-centric system might deter charters from serving the most at-risk kids, or force charters to offer test-driven instruction to students who might need more comprehensive support.

Petrilli argued that the power of standardized testing may be weaker than some assume, but that testing is still more powerful than Greene made it out to be. Authorizers shouldn't rely on test scores alone, but they are a very important piece to the puzzle. Petrilli concluded that at the end of the day, "We can either use reading and math gains as imperfect indicators of effectiveness while working to build better measures—buttressed by school visits and the like—or we can succumb to 'analysis paralysis' and do nothing."

Fortunately, we don't need to be paralyzed. Last week, the American Legislative Exchange Council introduced some model legislation that promises to help the charter sector move forward carefully and responsibly.

The idea behind the Student and Family Fair Notice and Impact Statement Act is simple and compelling: a charter authorizer should engage in a deep and meaningful conversation with students and parents before shuttering a school.

In brief, the proposal would require: 

  • Timely notice to parents for an intended closure or significant restructuring.
  • A survey of students, teachers, and parents to gain a more holistic sense of how and why they value their schools.
  • An analysis of the likely effects of a charter closure on its students.
  • A public forum to present the Impact Statement and offer the community one more chance to make their voice heard.

The proposal would not prevent an authorizer from shuttering a low performing charter school; but it would require more due diligence before such a decision is made.   

There's a whole lot to like here.  

It takes a big step toward a balanced resolution to the earlier debate. Greene argued that there's a whole lot that students and parents know that authorizers don't, and Petrilli argued that there's also a whole lot that authorizers know that students and parents don't.

Both are right. This proposal would give both authorizers and parents a fuller picture by requiring a robust engagement process.

The idea would also guarantee that students and parents at least have their voices heard. We know that parents don't particularly value test scores when choosing a school; things like school safety, a socially welcoming environment, a motivating sense of mission matter a great deal, too. When the Nevada Charter School Authority weighed closing an academically low-performing online charter school, one father testified that if his son were "in the average school he was in before, he'd be on the street. ... This is what these online schools provide—the comfort to know their kids are not going to become hoodlums, or do drugs."

His testimony, and the testimony of others like him, caused the Nevada Authority to postpone its decision to close the school. Parents should always have the forum to tell an authorizer what a school means to them.

Some charter advocates might say that "anecdotes aren't enough" to keep low-performing charters open. Hear, hear!

The Impact Statement would take us past anecdotes to data.

Authorizers would have a much more comprehensive sense of why parents may value a school despite its low test scores. It would also help authorizers make a data-driven case directly to parents that their kids would be better served in another school.

There are, however, some reasonable objections to the proposal as it's currently drafted. There's no doubt that the Impact Act would impose a burden on an authorizer, and legislators should take great care that the red tape is effectively targeted and tailored.

Here are three areas where the proposal could use some work:

First, when it comes to talking to parents, teachers, and students the work seems well worth the burden. But there are some other requirements, such as assessing impact on the public school to which a student would be assigned, which seem like second-order concerns that may end up distracting from deep stakeholder engagement.

Second, the process is initiated when an authorizer considers "termination, revocation, non-renewal, or significant restructuring as a condition of continued operation." It may be better to have a differentiated process for when an authorizer is considering restructuring rather than shuttering. As written, this proposal may inhibit efforts to reform low-performing charters by making that process just as onerous as closing down a school.

Finally, for a school with stable demand but low test scores, a robust engagement process seems sensible; after all, there's probably a lot that authorizers would need to hear from parents. But for schools where the immediate trouble is financial or legal, a less intensive process might be more in order; in those cases there might be more that parents need to hear from authorizers.

These are details that should be subject to further scrutiny and debate.

But in a movement dedicated to parent choice, the principle that authorizers ought to engage parents and students before making a final decision to close a charter school should command broad assent and spark a productive conversation in state legislatures across the country.

--Max Eden

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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