AZ Charter school advocates, take note

by David Safier

I consider myself an advocate of charter schools, but not the way they're set up here in Arizona, where it's too easy to get a charter and slip by without any accountability, and too rare for bad charters to be shut down.

So I'm pleased to see there is a national movement of charter school supporters who are working to address some of these problems. Arizona legislators on both sides of the aisle should take note.

In Ohio, for example, the state for the first time will compel as many as 23 low-performing charters to close at the end of this academic year, under provisions of a 2006 law pegged to the state’s accountability system. That legislation was enacted at a time when the governor and leading legislators in Ohio were deemed particularly charter-friendly.

"[Charter enthusiasts] have certainly awakened to the fact that there are too many crummy charter schools out there and not enough high performers," said Chester E. Finn Jr., himself a longtime charter proponent and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank.

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Attempts to close charters often face big barriers, [Bryan C. Hassel, a charter expert] noted, including staunch opposition from families. "These schools live on and exist, generally, even if they’re extremely bad," he said.

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Mr. Obama highlighted the issue at a campaign stop in Riverside, Ohio, two weeks after getting the Democratic nomination for president. "I'll double the funding for responsible charter schools," he said, vowing to work with governors to hold all charters accountable. "Charter schools that are successful will get the support they need to grow. And charters that aren’t will get shut down."

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One road to better charter quality that’s gaining far more attention is the role played by charter authorizers, the bodies charged with approving, monitoring, and potentially closing schools. 

. . . Robin J. Lake, the director of the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington, argued in a 2006 paper that “irresponsible authorizing—allowing unqualified people to open schools and doing little about bad schools—may prove to be the Achilles' heel of the charter school movement.”

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Some analysts argue that authorizers themselves should be held accountable for the quality of their work, and even for the performance of schools they oversee, with sanctions for authorizers who do a poor job.

"At the very least, states should track and make publicly available clear information about how each charter authorizer’s portfolio is performing," said the recent Education Department report.
Minnesota lawmakers are expected this year to act on legislation that would set a higher standard for authorizers.

"We still continue to have high-profile problems with some charters that give them all a bad name," said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, a Democrat who chairs the House K-12 education finance committee and is co-sponsoring the measure. "There have been some spectacular sponsors, and others who sign on the dotted line and absolve themselves of any responsibility."

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