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Charter School Closures Are Down, But Why?

The percentage of charter schools that are being closed when they are up for renewal has fallen for two straight years, a new report finds, though it's unclear whether the decline is a result of improved quality, or lax oversight and persistent political pressure to keep low-performers open.

In the 2010-11 year, 6.2 percent of charters reviewed for renewal were shut down, a decrease from 8.8 percent the previous year and 12.6 percent the year before that, according to a report released today by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

NACSA officials acknowledge that they don't have clear explanations for why closure rates fell.

One possibility is that the quality of charters has risen, though the organization did not seem inclined to accept that explanation at face value.

"[O]ur experience suggests that authorizing agencies should be closing more, rather than fewer, poor-performing schools," said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of NACSA, in a statement. "Across the country, we need strong policies and practices to make sure authorizers are making the right decisions to keep good schools open and to close weaker schools."

The report also notes that closure rates can be affected by the length of terms established for charters by authorizers. Charters with longer terms may have less chance of closing simply because they aren't reviewed as intensely as often. (Another recent report on charter schools examined the reasons behind the closures and pointed to financial problems as a major contributor.)

It's possible that the declining rates of charter closures are a result of the improved quality, but "there really isn't evidence that's the case," said Alex Medler, the vice president of research and evaluation for the organization, in an interview.

Another possibility is that charter authorizers are trying to shut down low-performers, but are meeting resistance, or at least the process is taking longer, because of "political pushback," he said.

NACSA's report points out that the policies for authorizing charter schools—and closing weak ones—varies greatly across states.

For instance, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board oversees 98 campuses and has been fairly aggressive in shutting down those that don't meet its standards—14 over the past three years, the authors of the report say. The Denver public school system has also been a leader in creating clear performance standards for charters and closing those that don't stack up, NACSA officials contend.

By contrast, the Utah State Charter School Board closed only one school between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years—a little over 1 percent of its portfolio of 75 charter schools, according to NACSA.

NACSA says current state policy in Utah allows charters to automatically renew, which prevents the state school board from "conducting high-stakes, periodic reviews that are common elsewhere," the authors found.

There is no right or wrong number of closures, Medler said, but charter authorizers—whether those duties are handled by state, local, or other entities—need to set clear standards for charters and hold operators to them. NACSA has set out 12 "essential practices" for authorizers, in areas such as establishing renewal and revocation criteria, creating specific terms for charters, and requiring external financial audits of them. Yet authorizers' performance in meeting those standards varies greatly, the report found. (See the table in this post.)

"We want authorizers to be able to articulate what's expected, and measure whether or not it's being achieved," said Medler, adding that the goal is to "put tools in place to make an informed decision about when to make a school closure."

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