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Charters that fail must pay the price

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on January 3, 2013)

When the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Board voted in mid-November to close Smithson-Craighead Middle School at the end of the current academic year, the decision angered parents and generated pleas for patience. This despite the fact that the charter school had been warned over several years that it needed to improve its performance or risk closure.

The most recent TCAP scores showed that only 7.6 percent of Smithson-Craighead students were proficient in math and only 17.6 percent in reading. These abysmal scores were far below those of other Nashville charter and public schools.

Nationally, the data on charter school closings have been mixed. One report from the Center for Education Reform indicated that 15 percent of the 6,700 charters opened over the past 20 years have closed. However, less than a fifth of these closed because of poor academic performance. Most were closed because of financial problems or mismanagement.

And charter school closures are down, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). The association observed a three-year decline in the percentage of charters closed at the time of charter renewal with 6.2 percent being closed in 2010-2011. However, the association cautioned that there could be several reasons for the decline, including improvement in school quality.

Critics who believe that charters are too slow to close might bear in mind another study, by Peabody alumnus David A. Stuit for the Fordham Foundation, that showed that poorly performing charters are much more likely to be closed than poorly performing public schools.

Signs also suggest that more charters may be closed in the years to come. In the fall, NACSA launched its One Million Lives campaign to strengthen charter school standards. It plans to work with authorizers, policymakers, legislators and charter school operators to close failing charter schools while opening new ones and enrolling many more children. In the face of evidence that most charter schools are neither better nor worse than their public school peers, NACSA hopes to help the charter school movement do a better job of policing itself and improving academic performance. The organization estimates between 900 and 1,300 charter schools are performing in the lowest 15 percent of schools in their states.

In the end, performance should be at the heart of the question of whether to continue or close a charter school. This means looking closely at student achievement on a school-by-school basis. Unfortunately, Smithson-Craighead Middle School did not withstand close scrutiny. MNPS was right to make the decision early enough in the year to allow parents to make other plans for their children. More such decisions may be needed in the years to come.

Parents, politicians and other charter school advocates need to remember that charters have always been experimental in nature. In exchange for public funding and operational latitude, charters promise innovation and academic success. When that success is not forthcoming, the experiment must come to a close.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.