Plan could close many low-performing charter schools

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The leading organization of charter schools in California is proposing a new way to evaluate them, one that could lead to the closure of many low-performing schools.

The proposal, being unveiled today by the California Charter Schools Assn., comes on the heels of a Stanford University study released earlier this week that found wide variation in quality among the state’s roughly 800 charter schools.

Jed Wallace, the association’s new chief executive officer, said the initiative has long been a goal of his, and will help fulfill the promise of the charter movement, in which public schools are granted nearly full independence with the understanding that they can face closure if they don’t succeed.


“We have, clearly, some of the most successful schools in the nation that are charter schools in Los Angeles and California,” Wallace said, “but we also have some that are not measuring up.”

Under the organization’s proposal, school districts that authorize charter schools would review them based on their “predicted performance” on standardized tests. This would be determined by comparing charter students to their peers in traditional public schools who have similar backgrounds and a past record of similar test scores. The idea is to measure the “value added” by a charter school.

The proposal drew qualified praise from state and local education officials, who stressed they hadn’t studied it in detail.

“This is a spectacular idea,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the state Board of Education. “I think that in too many cases, membership associations roll over on issues of quality among their membership, and this is definitely not the case” with the charter group.

He said, however, that it could be “a long road” to state adoption of the association’s plan, or one like it.

Currently, charter renewal falls under a 2003 law that allows school performance to be evaluated in one of five ways, including an “alternative accountability system.” Critics have said the vagueness of the statute provides leeway for political pressure to determine whether a low-performing school stays open.


The association’s proposal calls for the closure of the lowest-performing 1% of California’s charter schools next year -- about eight schools. After that, any school would be closed if it fell 10% or more below its predicted performance for the three years that led up to its application for renewal.

Wallace estimated that a dozen schools a year statewide would fall beneath that bar, more as the charter movement expands. He said the new standards dovetail with calls from President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for greater accountability in the charter movement.

Carol Barkley, director of the state Department of Education’s Charter School Division, said she did not know how many charter schools were shut down in a typical year, but said that many were closed for reasons other than academic performance.

Jose J. Cole-Gutierrez, director of the Charter Schools Division for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the district renewed the charters of 34 schools in the 2008-09 school year and denied four, resulting in their closure. The year before, it did not deny any.