Charter schools are about to get a reality check.
As someone who has observed the breakneck pace of the growing charter school movement up close, Greg Richmond, who leads the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), is taking a step back.
“We didn’t start this movement in order to create more failing schools, but that’s what we have,” Richmond told The Huffington Post. “Hundreds of them.”
On Wednesday morning, Richmond will join New Jersey Schools Commissioner Chris Cerf and California charter schools advocate Jed Wallace at Washington D.C.’s National Press Club to announce a new campaign, “One Million Lives,” that aims to crack the whip on the duds.
The campaign will focus on getting states to adopt rules that make failing charter schools close automatically, hold charter authorizers accountable for their schools’ performance, and revamp their authorizing bodies so they become more professional. Initial allies include organizations and philanthropies that have, until now, focused on growth — rather than quality — in the charter sector.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and often admit students via lottery. Proponents such as the Obama administration advocate for charter schools in the belief that educational opportunity should not depend on zip code, and that running schools without regulations — without district-imposed curricula or mandatory union representation — gives schools more room to innovate and succeed, unencumbered by bureaucracy.
But critics have long claimed that the schools siphon money away from public schools, and a steady stream of evidence has shown that, on average, charter schools do not outperform traditional public schools. NACSA found that between 900 and 1,300 charter schools are performing within the lowest 15 percent of schools within their state.
Because of results like this, some say an initiative like One Million Lives is long overdue. About a year ago, several charter school supporters told HuffPost that the movement needed to check itself, since it would be hard for politicians to continue advocating for funding these schools without definitive results, and with so many underperforming schools continuing to operate.
“We’ve been talking about this for a number of years and still there are hundreds of failing schools in the country,” Richmond said. “We have to switch gears from the rhetoric and make it reality.”
Most recently, he added, education policymakers have been concerned with low charter school closure rates. According to his organization’s survey, two years ago, 12 percent of charter schools up for renewal were shuttered; the next year, that number fell to 6 percent. These numbers were particularly startling because they indicate that charter schools aren’t holding up their end of the bargain: namely, increased flexibility in exchange for more accountability. New survey findings released Wednesday, it should be noted, show that the rate increased the following year.
Most notably, philanthropic groups that have attracted citicism for supporting massive charter growth — a move that often has them accused of “destroying public education,” as Richmond characterized their critics as saying — are getting behind the cause. Richmond said the initiative has significant support from the Gates, Walton, Robertson and Dell foundations.
Other initial allies include Cerf, who, in a statement, said the focus on closures “is precisely what the exchange of autonomy for accountability means — the core idea inherent in charter schools.”
Michelle Rhee, a former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, also praised the campaign.
“If we are going to really help kids succeed, every school entrusted with public money … must be held accountable to the families they serve and the taxpayer for high standards and achievement,” Rhee said. “We need to promote better authorizer practices and stronger state policies to achieve a higher quality of charter schools and, at the same time, set clear protocols for closing chronically failing schools.”
But even as the campaign launches, some states appear to be continuing down a path that prioritizes charter school growth over quality, threatening to create legions of new underperforming schools. The Michigan state legislature is currently weighing a bill that would expand charter schools further by allowing basically anyone to start one of these schools, with few safeguards for quality or experience.
“It provides no assurance of quality,” said Amber Arellano, who heads the nonpartisan advocacy group EdTrust Midwest. “This is a reckless gamble that threatens the very future of our students.”