Charter School Proponents Focus On Accountability In Word If Not In Deed

Cracking Down On Charter Schools?

The most recent call to close underperforming charter schools came not from a teachers' union or a school district, but from a charter-school trade association.

On Thursday, the California Charter Schools Association trumpeted its call for districts to discontinue 10 charter schools the group identified as culprits of "consistent academic underperformance."

"If you look at this in the longer term, you see this as increasing of the kind of accountability that will result in closures and charter schools understanding ... there's a level of accountability within the movement," Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the CCSA, told The Huffington Post.

And it's not just happening in California, the first state with a charter-school association to recommend the closure of its own lackluster members after a steady trickle of research has shown that, on average, charter schools don't outperform traditional public schools. As the charter school movement edges into its third decade, with enrollment reaching a critical mass at five percent of all public-school students, it appears to be taking stock of its own effectiveness.

Recent developments in California, Michigan and Washington, D.C. point to a shift in rhetoric among charter-school proponents: as these schools spread, quality control is just as important as unmitigated growth.

But skeptics question the sincerity of the movement's reflection, saying the accountability-focused rhetoric might be merely lip service paid to the promise of charter schools: independence in exchange for accountability.

"I think it's an important breakthrough in the aggressiveness with which the charter trade associations are now trying to prune the bad apples," said Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley, education professor. "Three national studies have shown that the average charter student is not outperforming the average regular public school per peer. Advocates are finding themselves on soft ground ... Maybe it's a rhetorical exercise but either way it's a significant shift."

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and often admit students via lottery. Proponents advocate for charter schools in the belief that educational opportunity should not depend on zip code.

As part of the accountability-for-flexibility tradeoff, charter schools must be regularly examined for renewal, but little data exists on how often underperforming charters are shut down. (A report the Center for Education Reform plans to release Wednesday will assert that 15 percent of charter schools have been shuttered).

Charter schools are also a favorite strategy of the Obama administration, which encouraged their development through the Race to the Top competition, but has not stressed accountability as prominently.

"Good charter schools are part of the solution, bad charter schools are part of the problem," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told HuffPost in an earlier interview. Regarding bad charters, he continued, "we should close them."

The calls for charter-school accountability come as Democrats who support the market and data-based movement that's become known as "education reform" seek to define themselves against Republicans who see charters as a privatizing alternative to vouchers.

"As charters take hold in our communities, questions will be raised about the quality issue," said Harrison Blackmond, who heads Michigan's arm of Democrats for Education Reform. "Democrats will be the ones who are raising that issue."

Even Vice President Joe Biden felt the need to articulate the distinction. "There are people who believe public education is failing and it has to be improved ... and there are people who just think public education is not the answer, that the answer is charter schools [and] private schools vouchers," Biden said at a recent college affordability town hall in Neptune Beach, Fla.

In California, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings tried and failed to push charter-quality control through the legislature several years ago. (Through a representative, Hastings declined to comment.)

Even so, Ursula Wright, interim head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says the state is ahead on accountability with last week's announcement. California has 982 charter schools -- last week, the association recommended that 10 of those be shut down.

"Last year we went forward with a study that was transparent about which schools were exceeding our expectations and which were not," Wallace said. (The study used California's school rankings, known as API, which some say are statistically questionable.) "We used the year to learn and visited 50 schools that were underperforming to make sure our measure was properly identifying underperforming schools."

But calling for the closure of 10 out of almost 1,000 charter schools seems like a pittance to Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who has evaluated charter schools for several states. Wallace noted the number is small because the group only considered charters up for renewal this year.

"I got a chuckle out of it," Miron said. "I remember ten years ago, people were saying 'now we're going to get serious, we're going to start closing low-performing schools.' We're seeing the same thing now."

Midwestern charter proponents are also discussing accountability. Michigan recently passed a bill that lifted the state's cap on charter schools. Traditionally pro-charter reform groups such as Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst, Education Trust MidWest and Democrats for Education Reform opposed the measure and tried to adjust it due to its lack of standards.

"I remain a choice advocate, but I don’t know how you usher in so many unaccountable charter schools," said state Sen. Bert Johnson (D), who represents Detroit.

Though the final legislation did include a working group on quality, none of these groups have since spoken out in its support.

"Our goal is to ensure quality across all public schools including charters," said Hari Sevugan, a spokesperson for StudentsFirst. "We are looking at what these steps would mean for that goal and if deficient will look to address those shortcomings."

A representative for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said he plans to sign the bill into law soon.

Washington, D.C., recently made steps toward cracking down on underperforming charter schools, releasing its first charter-school rankings. "The idea here is that we really do want to shine a light on what's going on in our charter schools," Brian Jones, president of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, told the Washington Post.

Charter-school accountability will increase in importance if advocates want to see continued growth, Fuller said -- and as their champion Obama runs for reelection. Fuller added, "If they can't show results, the movement will be in deep political trouble."

Related: Watch former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein discuss the future of charter schools.

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