Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Politics and Policy of Opening and Closing Charters Schools

Student First Academy, a charter school in Charlotte, NC, will close tomorrow, leaving 270 students to find some other school to attend for the final two months of the school year.  The state is revoking the school's charter based on various financial irregularities.  The full story on the closure is here.  But without digging into the specifics of this school, its closure raise four troubling issues.  First, the school has only been in operation for about two years.  In some respects, its opening, along with others in the state, was as abrupt as its closure.  Until 2011, North Carolina had capped the number of charter schools in the state at 100 (approximately one per school district). To become eligible for federal Race to the Top Funds, the state lifted the cap.  Numerous charters sprung up overnight, particularly in large school districts like Charlotte.  Now, the number of charter schools in Charlotte are higher per pupil than in most other areas in the state.  Closures of schools like Student First Academy raise the question of whether opening the gates too wide and too quickly lead to the problem these students will face tomorrow.

Second, while this school seems clearly troubled and warranting of closure, I am not sure whom it serves to close it tomorrow, rather than at the end of the semester.  The students are not at fault, but will suffer a serious burden.  Putting aside the problem of finding a new school, I wonder about the curriculum shift, grade calcuations, promotion to the next grade, etc.  My guess is that this mid-semester closure serves political interests.  It shows the state getting tough with a charter, sending a warning to others.  Yet, as some commentators point out, this school, and other schools, would have been less likely to engage in mismanagement if the state had been exercising appropriate oversight in the first instance.  In other words, the state is partially culpable, but is allowing the burden to fall on the students.

Third, this closure drives home an important difference between charters and traditional public schools. Traditional public schools do not leave students without educational options and they do not put them in the position of "looking for a school."  No one would claim our traditional public schools are uniformly strong or without financial misconduct, but they do not close the doors on students. In fact, it will be the traditional public schools that will take--and have no option but to take--the students from Student First Academy.  Charters, certainly if they are fully enrolled, will be free to turn these students away. In fact, they may be obligated to turn them away if they were a lottery school.  It is our traditional public schools that serve as the unwavering last line of defense for education.

Finally, this closure drives home the difference between marketplaces and school systems.  The marketplace failed these students or, at least, is imposing a burden on them.  The process these students will go through now is far different than that of a consumer whose favorite neighborhood grocery closed and who must now drive down the street to buy milk from Kroger's.  Of course, this oversimplifies the market debate, but captures the essence.  For a more thoughtful analysis, see here.  

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/2014/04/the-politics-and-policy-of-opening-and-closing-charters-schools.html

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