Reforms > Charter Schools

Why California must lead the way in closing underperforming charter schools


picture of Jed Wallace

Jed Wallace

Many of California’s charter schools are among the best public schools in the state, if not the nation, but some are also among the worst. It is time for the charter community to fix the failings in the sector so that more children have the chance to attend a great school.

The second state in the nation to allow charter schools, California has long been at the forefront of education reform. We must also lead the way in accountability, which is why the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) is proud to support the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) “One Million Lives” campaign, which kicked off in November. NACSA’s goal is to give one million children access to high-quality schools by encouraging effective charter authorizing, growing the number of high-quality charters across the country and closing those charters that are failing.

NACSA has called for:

  • All states to establish clear charter school performance expectations and close those schools that do not meet the standards.
  • Implement new laws to hold charter authorizers accountable for the schools they approve. Those that keep failing schools open will lose the ability to authorize schools.
  • Urge each state to create a statewide authorizer that will implement professional practices based on high standards and promote quality growth.

The fundamental premise of charter schools is more autonomy and flexibility in exchange for greater accountability. We are all collectively responsible for making sure that schools are truly held accountable for serving students well—charter authorizers, government officials, policymakers, parents and charter school leaders.

At the 20th anniversary of charter schools in California, this is the perfect moment not only to celebrate the positive impact charter schools have had on thousands of children, but to reflect on what we must do better. We must tap into the spirit that sparked this movement—our deep conviction that all children can achieve at high levels and deserve a high-quality education.

Last year, for the first time, CCSA publicly called for the non-renewal of 10 chronically underperforming charter schools. It may seem surprising that a membership and professional organization would call for the closure of some of its own members. However, we believe that the charter school community should lead the way on accountability and that CCSA is uniquely positioned to do so. Our public call is built on years of work behind the scenes with our members to find the best ways to assess and evaluate school performance.

The CCSA Accountability Framework guides CCSA’s efforts to raise accountability standards in a way that values academic rigor while also giving schools credit for growth and for taking on the challenge of serving traditionally disadvantaged students well. A key component is our Similar Students Measure, which looks at how schools perform compared to schools serving similar student populations across the state, as a way to hone in on the value added by schools. We found charter schools of all types were broadly distributed across the continuum of performance and that these metrics did not unduly penalize schools serving disadvantaged students.

In order to meet the CCSA Minimum Criteria for Renewal, charter schools four years and older must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Academic Performance Index (API) score of at least 700 in the most recent year, or
  • Three-year cumulative API growth of at least 50 points, or
  • Ranked “within” or “above” for at least two out of the last three years on CCSA’s Similar Students Measure.

Ultimately, it is authorizers—local school districts, county offices of education or the State Board of Education—that make the decision on whether a charter school will continue to operate.

To date, four of the schools on our list have closed—two voluntarily. In three school districts, the boards of education conditionally approved the charter schools, setting specific academic targets that, if not met, will result in automatic revocations. In San Francisco Unified, Center Joint Unified and Antelope Valley Union High, the board chose simply to renew the charter schools. Absent clearer guidelines/requirements governing renewal expectations, local political pressure can trump student performance outcomes as evidenced by these decisions to renew significantly low-performing schools unconditionally.

We knew it wouldn’t be easy to lead the way—but students deserve no less.

California charter schools have tremendous momentum, with 109 new schools opening this school year as parents and communities across the state turn to charter schools in ever-greater numbers.

We are tremendously excited about the growth of charter schools and support the growth and replication of California’s highest-performing charter schools. However, we cannot truly have the impact charters were intended to have—to reinvent public education—if we do not close those charters that have demonstrated an inability to meet the challenge of excellence and chronically underperform.

We have seen the power of great charter schools to transform the lives of children. But too many students are still not receiving the education they deserve. We did not start this movement to create more underperforming schools. For charters to succeed in improving public education, accountability must go from rhetoric to reality.

•••

Jed Wallace is president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, a membership and professional organization supporting the state’s 982 charter schools. He began his career in public education as a teacher at Hooper Avenue Elementary School, a 2,000-student school in South-Central Los Angeles, where he established a successful school-within-the-school that became the basis for an effort to convert Hooper Avenue to charter status. He later worked in the Office of the Superintendent at San Diego City Schools and then served as the chief operating officer of High Tech High charter school before joining CCSA.

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20 Responses to “Why California must lead the way in closing underperforming charter schools”

  1. navigio said

    on January 8, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    10 schools out of what, 1000? Is that all that are failing?

    I echo Curious’ plea for more transparency. Until that happens, charters can never be taken seriously.

    Personally, I feel charters should be accountable to society because, after all, there are kids in these schools. Politically speaking, they are also accountable to society because they are founded largely on the premise that public education is failing. Society took them at their word and gave them a chance to prove their point. With public money no less. If the results are a sham, society deserves to know that. In addition, early on, the claim was that public education would be improved by the things that charters proved to be successful. In that sense, charters would ideally burn themselves out in the process of improving public education. But of course, that is no longer the goal. Now the goals are arguably more nefarious, and even worse, political.

  2. An Involved Parent said

    on January 8, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Alan – the idea that somehow parents are supposed to know if a school is “quality” or not is laughable..I personally know of one school that has had over 50% turnover each year of it’s existence – yet they always manage to find more bodies to fill their seats. Some parents only care that their kids are happy and are not “getting into trouble” – meaning that they’re not getting called into the office to deal with issues week after week.

    No where in this is there any attempt to ensure children are learning – and it’s API is in the bottom 10% of schools in the state – yet CCSA recommended renew because they’d “improved” the required 50 points – even if that still left them in the bottom 10% of schools in the state as measured by API.

    Far too many parents are not educated enough to make a judgment – and Districts are lothe to shut down a poorly performing school – just look what happened when CCSA recommended closure of several school last year – many were renewed anyway – despite the fact that they did not meet state or CCSA criteria….

  3. navigio said

    on January 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    I would also like to understand why the 700 API cutoff was chosen. Mathematically, it’s possible for a school to have zero CST proficient students and still have over a 700 API.

    • el replied

      on January 7, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      navigio, obviously 691 would be setting the bar too low and 706 would be unreasonably high, excluding some up-and-coming schools… (grins, ducks, and runs :) )

  4. CharterStarter said

    on January 4, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Other than a very few workshops, what is CCSA doing to insure fewer charters will fail? What if the evaluators visited an underperforming school and looked for ways to support the school leaders? Starting and running a quality charter school is not easy, but it’s not rocket science, and it seems that CCSA is uniquely positioned to give targeted advice on how to turn a challenged school around. That’s where I’d like to see my dues going.

  5. CarolineSF said

    on January 3, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Here in San Francisco, CCSA recommended closing down Leadership HS (which BTW has in the past been hailed as a “miracle” school). The school board declined to, basically because it would be so disruptive to the students, and I believe because they felt CCSA was throwing Leadership under the bus as part of — to mix metaphors — a dog-and-pony accountability show.

    The reality in the real world is that Leadership has always had mixed results and was never the “miracle” as which it was formerly hailed nor the crashing failure CCSA now deems it to be.

  6. Alan said

    on January 3, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I believe that low performing charters should be closed. But I believe that the deciders must be the parents of the children, not politicians. The parents decide if the school is low performing and move their children to better options. When enough of the parents do so, the school will close.

    The parents with children in Leadership High in San Francisco may not have had better options.

    However I do agree with the general goal that charter schools are here to improve public education.

    Instead of recommending closure, I think the CCSA should recommend steps that the charter schools should take to improve.

  7. el said

    on January 3, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    If the purpose of charter schools is to provide options for different curriculum and learning strategies, it seems ridiculous to decide to shut one down based solely on comparison of its test scores.

    Heaven forfend we predicate such a weighty decision with those decisionmakers actually visiting the school campus, talking to the kids, staff, and parents.

    And frankly, those visits need to happen *regardless* of the school’s API or similar schools rank. It’s perfectly plausible that there are high performing schools that are full of financial irregularities, terrible morale, and substandard learning environments.

  8. Bea said

    on January 3, 2013 at 9:27 am

    I hope Wallace, and more importantly, CCSA members, are reading these comments closely.

    Wallace did not address @Motives questions, which have been raised before here and continue to go without response. Everything about the CCSA plan incentivizes selection for higher performing students.

    When Bruce William Smith questions CCSA’s strategies, charter leaders should sit up and take notice.

    Writing an empty framework with no teeth that fails to address the real challenges and impacts of charter schools, then blitzing the nation with a PR campaign is meaningless.

  9. Ben Riley said

    on January 3, 2013 at 7:43 am

    From a political perspective, Bruce, public support for charter schools — whether in the form of funding, facilities, or goodwill — will dry up quickly if the charter sector does not hold itself accountable for the performance of its members. The fact that CCSA is leading on this issue, rather than falling prey to the temptation of simply advocating for “due paying members,” bodes well for the continued vitality of California’s charter sector.

    • Bruce William Smith replied

      on January 3, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      Thank you for your response, Ben. But a question must be asked: To whom are chartered schools to be accountable? When I was leading one, and when I worked in a traditional public school, and when I worked in an independent school, I always believed that our accountability was first and foremost to the families that sent us their students. Since public funding is being provided to chartered schools, another constituency rises into view: taxpayers whose children are not attending those schools. We account to the former on campus, through report cards, public meetings, and so on; the latter are represented by their elected representatives (usually school boards), and are accounted to in the charter renewal process. Where do charter school associations fit in this mix, and whom do they represent, if not our present families or at least other voters in the local community?

  10. Bruce William Smith said

    on January 2, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    I find CCSA’s strategic direction baffling. Why it thought it should go into accreditation, or was qualified to do so, or that it thought duplication of WASC’s work was somehow helpful; why it decided to side with the authorizers against the interests of its dues-paying members; why it believes its leadership’s vision of accountability, which doubles down on the narrow test-driven mania of the traditional public schools, is the only one its leadership’s taxpaying fellow citizens should have access to (unless they have the money for private schools); why it thinks it owes allegiance to “the movement” rather than to its member schools; why it thinks its members should have to reach its expectations in addition to those specified in their charters: these all call into question why CCSA should continue to exist.

  11. An Involved Parent said

    on January 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I would have far more respect for CCSA if their standards were reasonable and rigorous – they are not. A bare minimum of an API of 700 is shameful! Your standards are far too low, and can easily be manipulated by savvy charter “leaders” – for instance – depressing scores via a failure of preparation in order to show a large gain over time. (with subsequent prep) My understanding is charters were granted their freedoms from ed code in exchange for PERFORMANCE – performance that was to EXCEED district schools – instead, in my local district (including it’s authorized charters) only 2 schools are below 700 (both have special considerations) and the district as a whole averages over 800 – why on earth CCSA feels 700 is an acceptable cutoff is beyond me. Perhaps because your members (the schools) do not truly support your accountability message? There are a few good charters, but plenty of bad apples, and many more than CCSA is willing or able to tackle weeding out.

  12. Jed Wallace said

    on January 2, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Thanks, CarolineSF, for your comments. CCSA doesn’t have the authority to close underperforming schools, nor do we want to have that authority. But as stewards for the broader charter school movement, we do believe it is our role to draw attention to challenges whenever they emerge. In this case, the distribution of charter school performance – with an unacceptable number of charter schools performing below expectation – leads us to conclude that authorizers need to be holding charter schools accountable to higher minimum performance expectations. The question then becomes, as a professional membership organization, how do we go about encouraging the kinds of changes we think are necessary?

    Fortunately, charter school operators themselves understand that high levels of accountability are a necessary part of the charter school equation, and our members have taken the lead role in helping us create a framework designed help school districts and other authorizers hold charter schools accountable for student success. As part of these efforts, our members have encouraged us to create high levels of transparency about charter school performance, helping us devise report cards about individual charter school performance and providing input on published reports such as our Portrait of the Movement document which focuses on broader performance trends happening across all charter schools. Finally, our members have been very supportive as we have taken the additional step of calling for the closure of schools that have missed the minimum performance expectations that our members have helped us devise.

    Over time, we are confident that our members’ continued leadership on this issue will result in authorizers across our state adopting clearer accountability standards at both a regional and statewide level. Until then, we stand ready to work with our schools to continue raising awareness and providing tangible resources designed to encourage those ultimately responsible for renewal decisions to make the difficult accountability decisions that will be needed as the charter school movement enters its third decade and grows into an era of unprecedented scope and impact.

    For more information about CCSA’s efforts to assess charter school quality and ensure appropriate accountability, please visit: http://www.calcharters.org/advocacy/accountability/

  13. Motives said

    on January 2, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    People reading this article need to consider Wallace’s proposal from an additional perspective.

    When charter schools are evaluated by quality evaluators, they generally don’t do any better than regular public schools if they are serving a good cross section of California students. This includes, economically disadvantaged, English learners, Special Education, and students having a hard time succeeding and staying in school. By closing the “low performers,” the Wallace proposal will make charters become schools that only serve better than average students, a move that may not, and probably will not, have anything to do with the actual quality of the school.

    This charter school “accountability” proposal would penalize schools serving struggling students, and doesn’t get at the charters that are mismanaged, have poor academic programs, and or have operators who are in it for profits rather than serving our public school mission of providing education for all California students.

    Every public school, regular or charter, wants to be known for its ability to successfully educate students, but sometimes this is really hard to do with even the best teachers and academic program. All public schools need to serve all types of students, and both regular schools and charters need to carry this responsibility.

    • Jed Wallace replied

      on January 3, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      I would like to respond to some of the issues raised by Motives, especially the contention that charters generally do not perform well in serving disadvantaged students. In fact, our statewide report, Portrait of the Movement at http://www.calcharters.org/portraitofthemovement, dives deep into the performance of charter schools in California and finds exactly the opposite. Two of the most important findings in the report are that:

      1. Charters that serve low-income students exceeded their prediction at high rates relative to the traditional system; students at charters serving low-income populations are five times more likely than their non-charter counterparts to be served by a school in the top 5th percentile.
      2. The impact of family income on charter schools’ API performance in 2011 was nearly four times less than the impact of family income on non-charters’ performance, thereby demonstrating that the supposedly unbreakable link between poverty and low performance which is so prevalent within the traditional system is being eliminated by California’s charter schools.

      As to Motives’ assertion that charter schools “generally don’t do any better than regular public schools,” our Portrait of the Movement document demonstrates that such overly simplistic generalizations fail to reveal the most important performance dynamics emerging within the charter school sector. Rather than comparing averages as many studies have done, our research profiles the distribution of performance for both charter schools and traditional public schools. When such profiles are created, we see that charter schools have higher concentrations of schools at both ends of the performance spectrum. For traditional public schools, meanwhile, the sobering reality is that very few schools serving impoverished students exceed their predicted levels of performance. As such, contrary to Motives’ assertion, we see that a strikingly large number of charter schools are in fact far outperforming traditional public schools and represent the greatest asset on the education landscape poised to be leveraged to broader impact.

      Accordingly, we believe that the policy implications for the Association’s member-led accountability work align with the goals of the One Million Lives Campaign. For those schools that are underperforming, we must instill greater levels of accountability throughout the movement, and for those schools that are over performing, we must improve the policy environment so that those schools may accelerate their efforts to serve ever higher numbers of students.

      Finally, as to Motives’ statement that the Association’s approach creates disincentives for charter schools to serve challenging students, I would simply encourage Motives and the broader public to learn more about the details of our accountability framework. The Similar Students Measure, which has been endorsed by many highly respected researchers, was designed to avoid creating disincentives to serve historically underserved students and to instead control for demographics so that each school is evaluated based upon the value that it is generating with the students it actually serves regardless of background. For more information about our accountability framework, I encourage you to visit: http://www.calcharters.org/advocacy/accountability.

  14. Curious said

    on January 2, 2013 at 11:33 am

    1) I’d like it if charter schools also published in plain English what their retention rates are. Some of the most famous charter networks in the nation have absolutely terrible student retention rates. For example, one famous charter school in Los Angeles that boasts of being the “top performing charter” has 40% or more of their students transferred out (some allege kicked out, but I can’t verify that) of the school by the time they reach 8th grade. This has been written about on numerous blogs. Time to blow the whistle on this one and speak truth. If you don’t believe me, just look up CDE data on how many students take the CST in 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade at a charter school. I’ve done this, and the trend is that the # of students declines, sometimes dramatically. Shouldn’t this be called dropout rate?

    http://miracleschools.wikispaces.com/

    See this Wiki, maintained by a group of teachers, some of whom I believe have taught at charters, and some of whom I know are affiliated with TFA.

    2) It seems the definition of performance is just based on the API. That means primarily multiple choice tests. Is that the best way to measure a school? Rocketship schools, for example, don’t have music or art in their schools. Do those low-income students not qualify to leran how to play an instrument or paint?

  15. CarolineSF said

    on January 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

    (Sorry for typos. Need more coffee.)

  16. CarolineSF said

    on January 2, 2013 at 8:38 am

    This may be technically true, but it’s not so simple:

    “Ultimately, it is authorizers—local school districts, county offices of education or the State Board of Education—that make the decision on whether a charter school will continue to operate.”

    Here are two examples of schools that the authorizer wanted to close, but the precursor of CCSA (it was then called CANEC, the California Network of Educational Charters) fought bloody battles to keep open:
    Edison Charter Academy, San Francisco
    Urban Pioneer, San Francisco

    Those battles were expensive and divisive to the school district and the community. To this day, you can find many community members in San Francisco who claim the school board shut down a great charter in Urban Pioneer, even though the school was plagued with these problems:

    — Two students were killed on a school wilderness outing.
    — The school was openly cheating in “graduating” students without the state-mandated requirements.
    — The school was in financial shambles, bouncing teachers’ paychecks.
    — Test scores were rock bottom.

    The fact that many in the community are unaware of those problems is directly due to the CANEC publicity strategy during its battle to keep the school open.

    (By contrast, Edison is generally discredited and forgotten, though former Edison executives sometimes falsely claim that its schools were successful as a resume point — Chris Cerf in New Jersey, for example. Meanwhile, the S.F. Edison school, now state-chartered, is now an independently operated charter and views itself has having thrown off the yoke as its corporate oppressor, failed for-profit Edison Schools Inc.)

    Undoubtedly, other districts viewed the battles that the charter sector fought against SFUSD to keep those two schools open and took it as a warning not to even try it. The Edison Charter Academy battle got national and even international news coverage — due to Edison’s own publicity campaign, to which the press responded with eager compliance, something that will baffle me forever — so districts everywhere could get the same warning: don’t **** with charter schools no matter what.

    For CCSA to blame authorizers such as school districts for keeping troubled chargers open is the proverbial killing-your-parents-pleading-for-mercy-because-you’re-an-orphan.

    I think you owe us a response to this, Jed Wallace. Please explain how the charter sector could wage those two wars against a school district (and undoubtedly others) and then claim that it’s up to school districts whether charters stay open or not. And aside from your 10 charters-of-doom list, how is a district to know if CCSA is going to fight a bloody battle or allow it to close a charter?

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