Closing Problematic Schools

By: Lucas Westmaas  

School closure is increasingly being wielded as the ultimate punishment for traditional public schools that do not achieve results acceptable to society.  In the public discourse, it is generally assumed that charter schools also face closure if they fail to meet similar standards.  This is the spirit as well as the letter of the law; in awarding grants to states, the Department of Education is supposed to give preference to states that “ensure accountability of public charter schools for reaching clear and measurable objectives.”  In reality, it is relatively rare for charter schools to actually face closure, even though their mean test results are statistically indistinguishable from those of traditional public schools.  This ought to be deeply troubling to the education community. The problem with traditional public schools is supposedly that, in the absence of market pressures, they have little incentive to work towards improved educational outcomes.  If charter schools do not face market pressures like the threat of closure, we haven’t actually addressed that problem – we’ve only dressed it in new clothes.

The U.S. Department of Education is charged with maintaining the Public Charter Schools Program and as such is responsible for overseeing charter schools in the states. The main instrument through which the Department of Education influences charter schools is through grants issued by its Public Charter Schools Program.  The program grants funds to local charter-issuing agencies, which subsequently make sub-grants to charter schools.  According to the mostrecent report from the Department of Education, 100% of states with charter laws use PCSP grants to help fund start-up costs.  The department could use the threat of removing this funding to persuade states to come up with more effective practices for holding charter schools accountable.

However, the department has shown little will to address the issue.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has described himself as “the biggest champion for highperforming charter schools.” At a speech to theNational Alliance of Public Charter Schools in July 2010, he noted that some charter schools are performing at “unacceptable” levels.  But Duncan stopped far short of suggesting the department would pursue punitive measures.  Instead, he recommended that the organization should be “much more proactive in [self-regulation], not that you have the ability to close them down, but you should not be tolerating in your family academic failure.”  He went on to criticize “the silence, the lack of courage, the lack of leadership, on both individual schools and on authorizers,” without mentioning that his department could easily punish states with lax standards by refusing to issue them new grants.  There is a stark contrast between this toothless chiding and Secretary Duncan’s 2009 pledge to close and overhaul 1,000 failing traditional public schools per year.

The underlying rationale of the school choice movement is that schools must be held accountable when they fail.  There are good charter schools and bad ones.  In order for market-based reforms to make an impact, bad charter schools must face closure. Secretary Duncan’s Department of Education is either unwilling or unable to confront that reality.

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