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
"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
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. …