Today some 5,600 charter schools are in operation, with more than two million students. Some critics persist in a fruitless argument that these schools have failed, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. But regardless of your opinion about them, charter schools are here to stay. Those concerned about public education should quit debating whether we should have charter schools and instead focus on improving their quality. That will require us to do at least two big things. We must replicate the most successful charter models—the subject of a Progressive Policy Institute paper last year, Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best— and we must close down the worst charter schools— the subject of this report.
From the beginning, the charter concept was to give schools more autonomy—freedom to hire and fire their staffs and control their own budgets and curriculum—while still holding them accountable for performance. No charter would be allowed to fail its students year after year, as traditional public schools are often permitted to do. If their students were not learning, they would close.
This promise has not always been fulfilled. Hundreds of school districts have authorized charters then failed to invest in oversight. Even some statewide authorizers report that they have insufficient data to make merit-based renewal and revocation decisions.
Let me be clear: failing charter schools are at much greater risk of closing than other failing public schools. Still, if we are to harness their true potential, many states need to heighten that risk. In its first 10 years, the charter community focused mostly on quantity: getting charters open. Over the past ten years, it has focused increasingly on charter school quality. Today, it is time to open a third frontier: authorizer quality. The key to quality in the charter sector is quality authorizing.
In this report I discuss why it is so important that authorizers close failing charters, review the facts about charter and authorizer performance, examine why some authorizers fail to close underperforming charters, and propose solutions to these problems. To answer such questions, I have reviewed the literature and interviewed fifteen current or former charter authorizers and another ten experts on charter schools. In addition, thanks to the generosity of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), I have reviewed the data accumulated by its annual surveys of authorizers.