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Charter School Restarts: Who Decides and How?

This month, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won't be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we've got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Jessica Sutter, president of EdPro Consulting and a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, will be guest-blogging.

My final post is a self-serving effort. I am writing my dissertation this year and subsequently spend a lot of time thinking about my research. My study is qualitative, and I am currently in the process of refining my conceptual framework. This last blog seemed like a nice opportunity to share my work-in-progress with folks who will, wisely, never read the completed tome.

First, what is a conceptual framework? It is essentially a model for how to think about something. In the case of my dissertation research, it is a model for how to think about who and what is behind certain decisions made when a charter school closes.

While most RHSU readers are likely familiar with charter schools, I'll offer this brief and oversimplified primer for any newcomers to the concept: A state passes a charter school law and names government-appointed authorizers who are granted power to open and authority to oversee charter schools. Interested school operators apply to an authorizer for a charter to open a school. The authorizer carefully considers the quality of the applications and decides whether and which schools may open.

Promising applicants are granted charter contracts by the authorizer, open schools, and advertise to families, seeking to build a student body. Schools that attract students and successfully execute upon their charter agreements get to stay open. Schools that are particularly successful or in high-demand may even get to replicate their school model or expand to serve more students. Schools that fail to attract enough students may close due to lack of financial viability. Schools that fail to execute upon the terms of their agreements may be closed by the authorizer for violations of the charter contract.

Because charter schools are schools of choice, when a charter school closes, for any reason, enrolled families must find other schools. They must look, again, for a charter school that meets the needs of their children, trying, again, to gain admission to a charter school through the lottery process. Or, they must return to the traditional public school in their neighborhood.

Recently, in some cities, a new pattern is emerging. Sometimes when a charter school closes, a new school operator immediately opens a brand new charter school in the same building, and guarantees admission to students affected by the closure. These new schools are called charter school restarts.

There are many questions a researcher could ask about these transactions. I am particularly curious about why charter restarts sometimes happen, and sometimes don't. In the city I am studying, there were 16 charter school campuses closed between 2013 and 2015. Seven of these campuses were restarted by new school operators. Why weren't the others? I am interested in understanding who decides which schools are closed, which are restarted, and how those decisions are made.

This is where a conceptual framework comes in handy. In order to answer my research question, I need to learn all that I can about the schools that closed and those that restarted. I need to understand what they have in common and what differentiates them from one another. And then I need to process that information in light of the broader context within which charter schools exist in this city.

In order to make sense of that context, I am using a conceptual model that looks at the players and forces at work in making decisions about charter school openings and closures. In generating this model, I relied heavily on a paper Rick published in 2001, so I owe him an additional debt of gratitude.

Charter schools emerged from roots in a market theory of education. They are schools of choice, operated by non-government providers, and affected by market forces of consumer demand and competition. However, as publicly funded schools, charters are subject to government regulation and closures most often happen as a result of regulatory failures—problems with compliance, financial, or management struggles, or failure to meet contractually agreed upon academic outcomes.

Charter schools are thus subjected to two different models of accountability—market-based and regulatory—which are set up for likely conflict. Put another way, a school that manages to attract and satisfy the "wants" of a robust student population might still be closed for failure to meet regulatory expectations.

Since education is considered a public good, government has a vested interest in what kinds of products are offered to education consumers. Charter school authorizers act as monitors of how public monies are spent, seeking to ensure good stewardship of resources and adequate and equitable education for children. But in a diverse American society, what comprises a "good" education is contested terrain. Parents may not always agree with the majority of the public on what counts as "quality" as they assess the needs of their children. What is good for one family may be perceived as substandard by another, or by the charter authorizer.

In addition to this accountability tension, decision-making about charter school closures includes realities of assets and politics. All schools have assets—buildings, equipment and materials, intellectual property, and student populations. But charter schools are unique. When a school is publicly funded but operated by a non-governmental entity in a market environment, what happens to its public assets if the school closes? And who gets the power to decide?

My hunch is that the decision to restart a school, rather than close it outright, has at least something to do with the assets a school possesses. If a school has assets that are of value in the market—say, a school building in a prime geographic location or a robust student population—other charter schools may want to acquire those assets. Similarly, if a charter school has liabilities that may be difficult to discharge, such as mortgage debt on a school facility, government may have a vested interest in finding a new school operator willing to assume responsibility for the facility and its accompanying debt. If a school has neither valued assets nor lingering liabilities, then perhaps decision-makers might see outright closure as a more tenable option.

Deciding how to discharge the available assets, or manage the liabilities, of a closing charter school is an inherently political process. Stakeholders, including families, school personnel, community members, and elected officials, all have perspectives. Is the charter authorizer the primary decision-maker, or is that best left to the board of the closing school operator? What role do other interested parties, like philanthropic funders or private lenders and mortgage holders, play in the process? What say, if any, do families have?

Other market-specific conditions also have bearing on these decision processes. How many schools are closing at a given time? How many other "good" school options exist as alternatives for affected students? When a large number of students are likely to be affected by a closure, or when the available school options are known to be low-quality, authorizers might seek ways to mitigate the consequences. If a restart is politically advisable but the assets of the closing school are undesirable or its liabilities are extensive—what then? How are these tensions managed to reach a decision?

Decisions to close charter schools necessarily involve managing tensions between market and regulatory accountability. I think that assets and politics add two further dimensions to decision-making about what happens once a school is slated for closure. I'm interested to see what data from my case study of one charter school market might offer to support that hunch, or to suggest other factors that influence decisions about charter school closures and restarts.

Who knows, maybe Rick will even invite me back to share the results.

—Jessica Sutter

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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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