Charter association's call for closure of charter schools stirs controversy

December 20, 2011
Photo by Seth Sawyers

Photo by Seth Sawyers

In a bold move that is generating controversy within its own ranks, the California Charter School Association is urging that 10 of the 145 charter schools up for renewal this year be denied their charters because they failed to meet academic performance benchmarks set by the association.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailed the association for its “courageous leadership” in attempting to “hold schools accountable.” “This is an important conversation for California to have, and one that we need to have across the country,” Duncan said, echoing remarks made by several charter school leaders.

But the association’s action has also provoked fierce criticism from schools it has recommended for closure, as well as from some long-time supporters of the charter movement.

Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, which has helped many new charter schools get off the ground, accused the association of “unsound and extra-legal methodologies and insensitive attacks” in a detailed critique on his organization’s website.

Within the charter school sector, it has raised questions about the role of the California Charter School Association (CCSA)  — whether it is principally an advocacy or trade association, or one that should enforce professional standards. No other charter association is believed to have taken a similar action in urging non-renewal of charters based on its own benchmarks of academic performance.

The move also underscores the complexities of rating schools based mainly on test scores, raising familiar questions about their ability to fairly measure the overall quality of the educational experience in a school.

The charter school association established what it calls an “accountability framework” to measure school performance, and set “minimum criteria for renewal” of charters, which includes achieving at least 700 on the state’s Academic Performance Index (API); registering an increase of at least 50 points on the API over the past three years; or performing as well or better than schools with similar student populations statewide in two of the last three years. The state’s performance goal on the API for schools is 800 out of a possible 1,000.

The charter association’s recommendation not to renew some charters was foreshadowed in its “Portrait of the Movement” report issued last fall. In that report, it essentially issued scorecards for each charter school, identifying those that failed to meet its standards.

“We have too many persistently underperforming charters and we need to come up with constructive suggestions to make sure there is sufficient accountability in the movement,” said Jed Wallace, president of the charter association.

Since then, the association has met repeatedly with the charter schools it had identified as low-performing and invited them to submit other information that would indicate growth on the part of the students, said Myrna Castrejon, the association’s senior vice president for achievement and performance management.

The schools identified by the charter school association for closure are a diverse group geographically and in terms of their educational approaches  — from the Unchartered Shores Academy in Crescent City at the northern tip of California which offers “family style education” to Nubia Leadership Academy in San Diego. They include the California Aerospace Academy on the former McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento as well as two online schools, Los Angeles County Online High and the California Virtual Academy in Kern County. Also on the list is Antelope View Charter School in Antelope near Sacramento and Leadership High, San Francisco’s oldest charter school.

“It punishes schools that reach out to help the tougher kids,” said Premack of the Charter Schools Development Center. He said charter schools have been accused of “creaming” the best students from public schools. If the California Charter School Association is going to measure them on how well they do with the lowest-performing students, “they will have little choice but to go down that path” of focusing on higher-performing students.

The California Standards Tests, the main tests used to calculate the Academic Performance Index, were not designed to be used as the sole criteria of a school’s worth, he said. “Everyone but CCSA seems to get that now.”

The Charter School Association’s Wallace strongly defended both the methodology used by his organization and the strategy of identifying schools it regards as not performing adequately.

“We fully expected some stakeholders in the community to have misgivings,” he said. But, he added, “we see ourselves as a professional membership association. Like the American Medical Association, these organizations are engaged in identifying minimum professional standards and calling for their enforcement.”

Typically charter schools are granted charters to operate by local school districts for five years, and then must seek renewal of their charters. Of the state’s almost 1,000 charter schools, 31 did not meet the association’s criteria, and 11 of those were up for renewal. After reviewing the 11 schools, the association recommended the closure of 10.

Not surprisingly, charter schools on the list interviewed by EdSource dissented strongly from the charter school association’s recommendations.

“We feel kind of stabbed in the back by them,” said Margie Rouge, director of Uncharted Shores Academy in remote Crescent City whose school is a member of the association. “We feel this was a betrayal in many ways.”

Rouge’s school had primarily provided services to home-schooled students, but three years ago it experienced an influx of students who were doing poorly in traditional schools, causing its API score to plunge. But the school, which serves 132 students, has been working with the new students and its API has grown more than 50 points to 633 during the past two years, Rouge said. She said she provided this information to the charter association, but the organization stuck to its criteria.

“They’re supposed to be supporting us, encouraging us to think outside of the box,” she said.

“No one from the association has visited our school, or talked to students, parents, staff or the county superintendent of schools,” she added. “We would have liked a bit more human interaction.”

“I feel very adamantly that we serve the needs of these students better than in regular schools where they are in classrooms of 38 to 40,” she said. “Our parents chose our school for very specific reasons and are happy with the progress their children are making. How can the association take away the rights of parents and recommend we be closed, especially considering that we have met the state’s requirements for renewal and our scores are on an upward momentum?”

Officials at San Francisco’s Leadership High, which serves about 200 mostly Latino and African American students, and has an Academic Performance of 653, called the association’s move “not only self-serving but disrespectful of the community.”

“Our school is doing amazing work in closing the achievement gap,” said Elizabeth Rood, the school’s executive director. She noted that the school has an 82 percent African American and Latino enrollment — the highest of any regular high school in San Francisco. She said only one high school outperforms the African American students at its school, and that is Lowell High, the city’s star academic high school. She said that if the same 700 API were used to measure other public schools, “you’d be closing 15 out of 23 high schools here.”

“CCSA’s attack on Leadership High is an attack on schools in San Francisco committed to serving black and Latino students,” she said.

But Wallace said that the California Charter School Association did not come to its decision lightly. He said it has spent months setting up the accountability system and visited 50 underperforming charter schools “to see if what we were identifying as low-performing schools were substantiated with additional quantitative and qualitative analysis.”

“What we were able to show is that for every school serving a demographic group that was struggling, other schools serving the exact same profile of students were doing far better,” he said. “We were able to see that our accountability framework was identifying low performance and was not focusing exclusively on schools that were serving at-risk youth.”

He said that his association had given schools an opportunity to correct the data. “We go through a very long and thorough process before identifying schools in this manner,” he said.

One of the online charter schools, California Virtual Academy in Kern County, just missed the API goal of 700. The school, with an enrollment of 571 students, had a score of 696.

A group named California Parents for Public Virtual Education has come out on behalf of the virtual school. “Rather than being an advocate for charter school students, the association has chosen to undermine parent choice under the guise of ‘accountability,'” said Barbara Lynch, described as board member in a press release.

If a charter school is having difficulty demonstrating student achievement, it is the responsibility of parents, teachers, school administrators and the local school district to find a solution and to get the school back on track. Unfortunately, it seems the association would rather remove local control, close down the charter school, and eliminate educational choice.

(Note: this website lists no names of individuals as contacts or office holders, physical address, or who supports the organization).

Some school district officials were also puzzled by the charter association’s action. George Tigner, the chief administrative officer for Center Joint Unified School, which authorized the charter for Antelope View in 2007, said the charter school serves about 120 students “who don’t blend in very well in our district.” He said its system of block scheduling may work better for these students. Most classes are 90 minutes long, and the school day lasts 5 1/2 hours as opposed to the regular 6 1/2 or 7 hours.

“We would like to see higher test scores, but the school is doing well in other respects,” he said. The school, with an API score of 682, was accredited, he added, and many of its students are going on to college, whether to a community college or four-year university.

Jason Sample, director of Gateway Community Charter, the charter management organization that runs the California Aerospace Academy, said that the California Charter School Association’s action “was not helpful to the process. It definitely muddies the water.” He said since the announcement by CCSA, parents have been calling him, thinking that the school won’t reopen after the Christmas break.

The renewal of a charter, he said, should be worked out between a charter school and its authorizer. At the end of the day, whether a charter is renewed is “up to the criteria in the California Education Code.”

And in Marysville in Yuba County, the County Office of Education has come out strongly in favor of keeping the Yuba County Career Preparatory Charter open, despite poor test results, according to a report in the Marysville Appeal Democrat. The school has an API of 516, 21 points lower than last year.

Yuba County Superintendent of Schools Scotia Holmes said the charter school, which opened in 1995, serves very high risk students who have not succeeded in regular schools. In addition, the school, which one board member describes as “an educational E.R.,” has a very high turnover rate because of the student population it serves, making comparisons from one year to the next difficult.

Despite current unhappiness and pushback, Wallace said he believed his association’s actions will benefit the charter school movement, and taxpayers, over the long term. He said in other states charter school associations have not had a proactive response to deal with the “reality of persistently underperforming schools” to the detriment of the movement. Without that kind of response, it invites legislative actions that are “harmful to charter schools’ interests,” he said.

“Being good stewards of the sector is one that protects the interests of the public, and also the long-term well-being of all the operators within that sector,” he said.

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