Clearing Up Confusion On Charter School Accountability

When the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) released its “struggling schools” list last week, it included six charter schools alongside over 40 district schools. Clearly, NYC DOE wants to signal that accountability is for all schools, including charters. (I can’t help but think how far we’ve come from the time when actual closure was likely only for charters.)

Make no mistake: there’s no one in the sector who really disagrees with closing schools that don’t perform, particularly charters. But it’s worth remembering that while accountability is for everyone, it works a bit differently in the charter sector.

First, charter schools have well-defined accountability plans that lay out with great specificity the academic benchmarks that they have agreed to meet during the time their charter (which is really a license) runsóusually five years. And because the charter is a kind of contract between the authorizer (here DOE) and the school, DOE can’t simply move the goal posts mid game. The fact is that some more recently chartered schools have goals that are related to performance on the DOE’s progress reports. But many don’t, either because they have been authorized by SUNY or the Board of Regents (which give a lot less weight to those reports), or because DOE authorized them before the progress reports were instituted. These charter schools can’t be closed because of performance on that particular metric (or any other metric not in the accountability plan).

Second, the Charter Schools Act makes it extremely difficult to close a charter school mid-term for academic failure; financial mismanagement or serious legal violations are another story. The Act requires a four-year pattern of academic failure to even begin the closure process mid-charter: one year below the state’s “schools under registration review” standard, followed by no improvement for three years. Since the typical charter term is five yearsóand even one year of slight improvement resets the clock (even dead cats bounce)óthis corner of the law is almost never relevant.

Can charter school authorizers set high goals for academics, and close schools for failure to meet them? They can, they have, and they absolutely shouldóbut it almost always happens at the end of a charter termówhen the school is up for charter renewal. So all the charter schools on the DOE’s list do face the possibility of closure, and it makes tremendous sense to inform them of that fact, but when that could happen will depend on the charter.