In a new report, the Network for Public Education shows how big a gamble it can be to enroll your child in a charter school. And the odds are not in parents’ favor.
“Broken Promises: An Analysis of Charter School Closures From 1999-2017” is a deep dive into the data surrounding patterns of charter closure and the number of students affected by those closures, especially those in high poverty areas. NPE is a advocacy group co-founded by Diane Ravitch, the Bush-era Assistant Secretary of Education who has since become an outspoken critic of education reform. The organization's executive director is Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York principal; Burris co-wrote the report with Ryan Pfleger, an education policy researcher.
Within the first three years, 18% of charters had closed, with many of those closures occurring within the first year. By the end of five years, 25% of charters had closed. By the ten year mark, 40% of charters had closed. Of the 17 cohorts, five had been around for fifteen years; within those, roughly half of all charter schools had closed (anywhere from 47% to 54%). Looked at side by side, the cohort results are fairly steady; the failure rates have not been increasing or decreasing over the years.
Charter advocates have often argued that charter churn is a feature, not a bug, simply a sign that market forces are working and that weaker schools are being sloughed off. But the NPE report notes that these closures represent at least 867,000 students who “found themselves emptying their lockers for the last time—sometimes in the middle of a school year—as their school shutters its door for good.”
The disruption to students and families by the cycle of closing schools is captured by one parent quoted in the report:
For the last three years I have had to place my kids at different schools each year because the schools keep closing. My child was attending MCPA, that school closed. He then went to Medard Nelson, that school closed. Now, he is at Coghill and y’all are trying to close that school. I am tired of moving my child every year because y’all are closing schools.
The destabilizing effects of charter churn are further exacerbated in the poorest cities. The report finds that in cities like Detroit, Tucson and Milwaukee, the rate of charter closure is highest in the areas where poverty is highest. Students and families that need stability from their schools are instead repeatedly subjected to a cycle of starting over with a new school, new teachers, new procedures, new rules. Research suggests that when students move from school to school, it negatively affects their chances of success.
The report also finds that the states with a large charter sector have the large rates of failure. At the five and ten year marks, Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida show the top failure rates, with Ohio close behind.
Beyond the human cost of these failures, there’s the high financial cost. A previous NPE report shows that the federal government has spent at least one billion taxpayer dollars on charters that closed quickly or never even opened at all.
Charter supporters may argue that this is all just the market working itself out, but that’s hardly a comfort to parents who must go through shopping, application, enrollment and adjustment to the new school yet again. As the report acknowledges, there are charter schools doing some excellent work out there, but for parents, enrolling a child in a charter school—particularly a new one—is a bit of a risk. It’s one thing to see market forces work in a sector such as restaurants, where new businesses come and go and very few go the distance; if you discover that your new favorite eatery has suddenly closed, it’s a minor inconvenience. It’s another things to see such instability in a sector that is supposed to provide stability and education for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
The report is available at the NPE website.