OpinionOp-Ed

When charter schools fail, close them

Colleges and UniversitiesLos Angeles Unified School DistrictStanford University

Charter schools make a basic promise to students, parents, school districts and the state: They operate with greater autonomy and flexibility than regular public schools in exchange for increased accountability.

In keeping with this covenant, the California Charter Schools Assn. has established an accountability framework and minimum criteria for charter renewal. As charters come up for renewal, this framework allows us to not only support high-performing schools but shine a light on schools that aren't doing their job.

This month, the CCSA is calling for the closure of six schools across the state because of poor academic performance, including one in Los Angeles.

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The charter movement in Los Angeles has much to celebrate. The 262 charter schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District are among the highest performing in the state, and they are also among the highest performing of all public schools in the nation, based on the state's most recent Academic Performance Index scores, on graduation rates and on college readiness indicators (such as the percentage of graduates who complete college prep classes).

By and large, L.A. Unified charters also outperform the district average in API scores and graduation rates for Latino and African American students, and students from low-income families; in other words, they are succeeding at closing the socioeconomic achievement gap that plagues U.S. education.

Parents are choosing charter schools in high numbers in L.A., with more than 15,000 students on wait lists.

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But the data collected and analyzed by the charter school association also shows that one L.A. charter up for renewal in 2014, New Designs Charter School-Watts, is among half a dozen seriously underperforming schools in the state.

New Designs-Watts has missed all of the minimum performance benchmarks established by the association.

The CCSA analysis only looks at schools after they've been in operation for at least four years, so year-to-year performance can be compared. We use publicly available measurements — API scores — and we take into account, using regression analysis, the challenges schools face in terms of student socioeconomic status, mobility, parental education and other such demographic variables. We also allow schools to submit other measures of academic performance.

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In the case of New Designs-Watts, we can't recommend renewal. It has a low API score of 654 for the 2012-13 school year, and it has lost ground — by 13 points — on API over the last three years. By our measures, it has also consistently underperformed compared with other schools serving a similar student body in Los Angeles and in the state. Its API score and proficiency rates are among the lowest for all schools in California.

In the coming months, the L.A. Unified board will decide the fate of New Designs-Watts. It will not be an easy decision to close the school, but we believe it is necessary. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University conducts one of the most respected studies of charter school performance in the nation. Its 2013 report concludes that shutting down low-performing schools is the "strongest tool available to ensure quality" in charter schools.

Our analysis reinforces that view. Over the last five years, our measures show the already high percentage of California charter schools that are high performing has increased modestly while the percentage of low-performing charter schools has dropped by about one-third. We do not believe it would have been possible to make this progress without the association and its members acting assertively to hold underperforming schools accountable.

In 2011, we called for 10 schools to be closed; eight were either closed or improved, and two remain on the list of schools that we continue to believe should be shuttered. (For a list of our 2013 recommendations, see our website.)

When a school thoroughly misses the mark for academic performance, it isn't fulfilling its charter. The California Charter Schools Assn. calls on L.A. Unified board members to show the resolve needed to ensure that healthy levels of academic accountability are in place in Los Angeles.

As difficult as it is to close a school, that is what is required to ensure that California's charter movement fulfills its promises to students and the state, and maintains the high level of achievement required to continue to play a transformational role in the education system for years to come.

Jed Wallace is president and chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn.

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