Friday, October 19, 2018

The Promises Charters Don't Make

Because the term "charter schools" often comes with the word "public" attached, parents can be surprised by some of the ways in which charters do not operate like actual public schools. Here are just a few factors that emptors should caveat when considering a charter school.

A Stable School

Recently in just one week, word that two separate charters will be closing their doors immediately. In Delaware, the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security closed its doors on Tuesday. It announced that closure on Tuesday in a letter to families. Wednesday, Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice announced that its last day of classes would be Friday.

Sudden closure of charter schools is not unusual. The Center for Media and Democracy found that about 2,500 charter schools closed between 2000 and 2013. Some of them closed at the end of the school year, some never opened in the first place, and some closed abruptly in the middle of the year. Charters can close for a variety reasons; this week's closings appear to be due to financial problems because of low enrollment.

Charter schools are businesses, and they close for business reasons. That doesn't make them evil, but it does make them different from the public system, which is built, however imperfectly, on the promise that the community will guarantee an education for every student. Charters promise to educate students as long as it makes business sense to do so.
Charters in most states have no obligation to find placement for the students that are left schoolless by a closing. Those families must now scramble for a seat for their children in some school. Of course, the public schools will always take them, but in Detroit, where the city's troubles and a drive to replace the public system with a charter one have hollowed out the public education system, even finding a public school is now a challenge.
Fans of the competition model will say these closing are a feature, not a bug, and that it's simply the market's way of replacing bad schools with good ones. But there's little evidence that any such improvement is occurring (see, again, Detroit). And one must question if such competition is worth the disruption and uncertainty for students and their families. Closing a school is not like shuttering a fashion store at the mall. Starting at a new school multiple times in one year is not beneficial for student learning.
A Strong Education Program
In many states, lack of tight regulation means that charters may not be providing valid, professionally-developed and -delivered educational programs. It's also common for charter school classrooms to be led by staffers who are neither trained nor certified to teach.
An outstanding example is the Eagle Arts Academy of Florida. Founded by a man who was first a male model, then bought a publishing business, then went bankrupt, the school was supposed to have a proprietary education program developed by an education professional, who swiftly quit, leaving the founder to finish the work himself. The school burned through three principals in three months, and funneled much of its money to the founders other companies, but neither academic nor financial shenanigans gave the board charged with charter oversight the power to close down EAA.
Responsive Management
With major charter school chains, the People in Charge can be located hundreds of miles away, or even in another state. Each state has a system of authorizers-- people who have the power to decide if a particular charter school should exist or not, but that system is not always helpful.
For example, some charters in Detroit are authorized by Bay Mills Community College, a two-year school located on the Canadian border. Google says it would take five hours to drive from Detroit to BMCC. It seems unlikely that Bay Mills keeps close tabs on its Detroit charters, and it seems unlikely that parents who were unhappy at those charters could reach out to Bay Mills to voice complaints.
Promises, Promises
There are undoubtedly particular charter schools that make these promises and work hard to keep them. But the patchwork of charter regulation (or lack thereof) across the country, combined with the idea that charters work best when freed from the regulatory restraints under which public schools operate, means that no parent can assume that a charter school has a commitment to these promises that many parents assume are part of operating a public school.
Parents can try to do their due diligence, but part of running a business is doing marketing, and charters are not going to market themselves with phrases like "financially troubled" or "featuring a curriculum made up by unqualified amateurs" or "barely hanging on."
Until the modern charter landscape changes, we can continue to hear from parents like Avian Retick. "We were blindsided," she said. "They sold us on a lot of opportunities that aren't going to come to pass."
Or Delta parent Victoria Haynesworth, who said, "I trusted the school with my child. This is horrific."
Charters as currently managed make fundamentally different promises than public schools. We can either require them to live up to those public school promises, or make a fundamental shift in what promises we expect schools to make.

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