Last week the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a fine new report tracking school closures over time in the charter school sector. The comprehensive new study, Broken Promises: An Analysis of Charter School Closures from 1999-2017, tracks built-in instability in this education sector which sucks money out of the public schools.
Charter schools are paid for with public tax dollars and surely ought to operate for the benefit of their students and the communities where they are located. But the charter school sector has been troubled from the beginning. For years we have learned about problems in charter schools, one school at at time, one scandal at a time: academic failure, graft and corruption, sudden school closures, selection of students in a sector that is supposed to be open to all, the violation of students’ rights through punitive discipline and pushout schemes, and other problems. It has been hard to get a handle on overall trends, as a succession of breaches of the public good were reported one-at-a-time, city-by-city in the press. The Broken Promises report instead documents a long trend.
NPE’s new report begins by defining the marketplace philosophy underneath the idea of charter schools: “Charter schools began in the 1990s as an experimental alternative to public schools. Today charter schools are a multi-billion dollar sector composed of both nonprofit and for-profit corporations that embrace the philosophy of the marketplace. The survival of charter schools, much like the survival of small businesses, depends on their ability to out-compete other schools and to attract new customers. Unlike businesses, however, public tax dollars are used to pay charter operators who personally assume little financial risk. The public places bets on schools in a marketplace model. Too often, it is a losing gamble. Supporters of charters see school failure as a natural feature of the model.” The overly simplistic assumption is that the schools which don’t serve children well will cease to attract customers, and the weakest schools will shut down. The model is premised on a belief that the market will enforce an upward spiral of perpetual improvement. It hasn’t worked.
What has occurred instead is instability paid for with our tax dollars. The new NPE report begins by quoting a New Orleans mother speaking to the Orleans Parish School Board in a school district that began the nation’s largest charter school experiment in the years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Last year, parent Eloise Matthews learned that her child’s school was shutting down: “I am a parent of Mary D. Coghill (charter school). For the last three years I have had to place my kids at different schools each year because the schools keep closing. My child was attending MCPA, that school closed. He then went to Medard Nelson, that school closed. Now, he is at Coghill and y’all are trying to close that school. I am tired of moving my child every year because y’all are closing schools.”
Underneath the Network for Public Education’s new Broken Promises report is a reminder that a valued characteristic of traditional public school districts across the United States is stability. Public schools are essential institutions for anchoring neighborhoods, and public high schools are institutions of community pride across generations. In contrast, the unstable charter sector is defined by competition for higher aggregate student test scores and a private operator’s business savvy in a marketplace. Overall, across the states, “The large and growing number of charter schools that fail raises questions about the stability and efficacy of the charter sector. What is the expected life-cycle of a charter school? When a parent enrolls their kindergartner, what is the probability that the school will be there when they graduate to the next level of schooling? How many students are displaced when charter schools close? Which neighborhoods are most affected? Why do so many charter schools fail? Is this merely the result of ‘accountability’ based on academic performance, or are charter school failures inherent in the competitive, market-based model?”
NPE explains: “This report provides the first comprehensive examination of charter failure rates over time—beginning in 1999 and ending in 2017. By following all charter schools, from the year they opened, we were able to determine how long they lasted before closing down. We also determined how many students have been displaced by failing charter schools… We found charter closure rates to be alarmingly high, rising to 50 percent by the 15-year mark.” Eighteen percent of charter schools closed within the first three years of operation. “By year ten, 40 percent of charter schools had closed… Between 1999 and 2017, over 867,000 students were displaced when their charter school closed.” And finally, “In three of the poorest cities in America—Detroit, Tucson, and Milwaukee—the rate of charter closures was higher in areas with greater than 30 percent of households in poverty… Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida had the top failure rates at both the five-year and ten-year mark. Ohio was in the top five at both benchmark years.”
In three cities, Detroit, Tucson and Milwaukee, the authors examine the various reported reasons charter schools have shut down: academic failure, an operator’s decision to close the school, low enrollment, financial failure, fiscal mismanagement, and a multiplicity of these problems. The introduction, however, turns our attention to New Orleans, an experiment launched Shock Doctrine fashion, without sufficient oversight in the midst of a natural catastrophe. Louisiana has kept on expanding the experiment for fifteen years since Hurricane Katrina struck in September of 2005: “Because every school in New Orleans is now a charter school, it is likely this instability will continue…. New Orleans presently has about 80 charter schools run by 38 different private, unelected boards. While the total number of schools in the city may be relatively stable, individual schools are not. Charter churn is baked into the New Orleans model—more than 35 charter schools in the city shut down between 2006, the year following Hurricane Katrina, and 2017. Surviving schools are frequently taken over by new operators, who often have a very different mission and vision for the school. The days of stable schools rooted in New Orleans’ communities and governed by local elected boards are gone… The promise of better opportunities for local children has become a promise broken over and over again.”
Why is the public not aware of the problem of charter school closures? “The enormity of charter failure (50 percent by year 15) has been largely masked by the accelerated pace of new charters opening. The narrative of charter advocates highlights the number of newly opened schools… However, increases in openings correlate with increases in closures… A new charter does not pop up next door to take the displaced students and their teachers… (P)arents are often left scrambling to find a school in far less time than a new school could open. And if their choice is another charter school, they may meet with the reality that only four states (Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, and Massachusetts) require that charter schools admit new students mid-year. Therefore, the burden of a charter’s closure more often falls upon the local public school, which finds itself with an unexpected influx of students whose charter had failed or pushed them out. Schools can’t adequately plan for staffing, materials, and facilities when there is no way of knowing when or if a nearby charter school might put 50 or 100 kids on the street on a Friday, knowing that the public school is obligated to enroll them on a Monday morning.”
The report concludes: “(M)ost charter advocates argue that charter closure is not a bad thing. They believe that charter churn will ultimately result in an improved sector of schools. However, there is scant evidence that charter schooling has improved much during its three-decade experiment. Regardless, it is doubtful that the nearly one million children displaced by shuttered charter schools would agree that small gains in narrow measures of school quality like standardized test scores are worth the disruption in relationships with classmates, teachers, and staff.”
The Network for Public Education’s new Broken Promises report builds on other comprehensive investigations that have begun appearing.
Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Results in a Pileup of Fraud and Waste, The Network for Public Education, April, 2019; and a follow-up report Still Asleep at the Wheel, December, 2019.
Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, Gordon Lafer, In the Public Interest, May, 2018.
Charters and Consequences, Network for Public Education, November, 2017.
Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Bruce Baker, Economic Policy Institute, November, 2016.