Closed for Business ; High-Profile Charter-School Failures Raise Concerns about Loose Regulation

By Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2000 | Go to article overview

Closed for Business ; High-Profile Charter-School Failures Raise Concerns about Loose Regulation


Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


There was nothing gentle about the way parents, teachers, and students were informed that the Academy of Austin Charter School had closed. They simply arrived at the Texas school one morning last December to find an empty, locked building. Fortunately, the incident was not typical. Of the more than 2,000 charter schools that have sprung up in the United States since the movement began in 1991, only about 4 percent have failed, according to a report by the National School Board Association in Alexandria, Va.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, have garnered broad support as a way to increase public school choice for families. Both presidential candidates advocated rapid expansion of the concept during their campaigns.

But despite safeguards that allow for regular review of such schools - and revoking their licenses if they're performing poorly - some observers question the wisdom of considering expansion without first more carefully evaluating the charter schools already in existence.

"Any dramatic expansion of the charter-school movement through federal legislation without changes and improvements in legislation at the state level would be ill-advised," says Darrel Drury, director of the NSBA's department of policy research and one of the authors of the report.

A recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which is supportive of charter schools, states that 50 of 53 studies conducted since 1995 show on the whole that charter schools are succeeding. The studies indicate that schools are working to provide new opportunities for their students, as well as to push traditional public schools toward reform.

Nonetheless, a report released at about the same time by the NSBA, which represents traditional public schools, paints a more somber picture. It acknowledges that parental and student satisfaction with charter schools is currently high. But it goes on to argue that with a few exceptions, schools have yet to prove that they can boost student achievement or positively impact other public schools. The report also warns that unless state legislatures strengthen the rules governing charter schools, the movement could lose support.

Revoking a school's charter

The concern becomes particularly acute when a school is in bad enough shape to close. In Minneapolis, when the Right Step Academy charter school had its charter revoked in late July of this year due to charges of financial and academic mismanagement, the school district found itself suddenly scrambling to locate spaces for 85 elementary-school students.

The Urban League of Minneapolis, which operated a school in the city as a contractor to the district, was able to take on the stranded kids, re-opening a school at the failed school's site and rehiring some of the faculty who had just lost their jobs.

"It was hectic and crazy around here, but it's working out," says Perry Price, academic education administrator for the Urban League, of the rush to get the new school up and running. Most students, he says, appear to have made a good adjustment.

But many parents were angry, he reports, when they found out midsummer that their kids might not have a school to report to in September. Some of the teachers rehired from the charter school also required reassurance before agreeing to come back to work. They told stories of not receiving paychecks and of lacking basics like books and paper.

A look at Texas

Such serious failure to perform is not at all typical of the charter-school movement. But Oklahoma, South Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey have all seen charters shut their doors in recent months. And Texas, where education reform has been a much-touted priority, has taken the lead in high-profile charter failures.

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