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Authorizers Hold Schools Accountable for Meeting Performance Goals
One of the most challenging tasks that authorizers face is to hold schools strictly accountable to the terms of their charters. Much of the work that these offices do at each stage of the authorizing process is designed to make the accountability process as straightforward and objective as possible so they can make sound decisions about whether to allow schools to continue operating when their charters come up for renewal.
Every state with a charter school law is different from one another. States differ both in how they hold schools accountable for the success of education programs and how the states hold authorizers accountable for fulfilling oversight responsibilities. Aside from approving charters and monitoring their progress, most authorizers have two main responsibilities: 1) to revoke a charter at any time when the school is clearly not meeting expectations and 2) to renew or not renew a charter based on information about whether the school has fulfilled the terms of its contract, including its academic performance goals. Renewal decisions are usually made every five years, but this timeframe varies among authorizers.
These offices ensure that they will have the information they need to make sound renewal or revocation decisions by focusing on sound practices from the very beginning of the chartering process. That is, a strong recruitment and application process allows only the most promising schools to open; a thoughtful contracting process encourages schools to develop a set of measurable performance goals; and a thorough and ongoing monitoring process documents each school's progress toward its goals, which enables the authorizer to intervene early if problems arise.
Intervene early as problems arise
While these authorizers generally take a handsoff approach to education issues, such as curriculum or instruction, each sees it as their responsibility to intervene, to varying degrees, when a school falls out of compliance with other organizational, fiscal, or performance expectations.
Only one of the 12 schools authorized by VOA of MN has performed poorly enough to warrant formal intervention. Staff members at the VOA of MN charter office attribute this success to their ongoing efforts to foster and maintain a strong, close relationship with their schools. In addition to conducting four site visits per year and requiring schools to submit two annual reports, the VOA of MN charter office also collects board minutes monthly and keeps in touch with schools informally through phone calls and e-mail. In the staff members' experience, board minutes are often an early warning sign of trouble. For example, if Testerman, the director of the VOA of MN Charter School Sponsorship Program, says he reads in the board minutes that a school hasn't been able to pay a bill or has initiated a personnel action, he follows up with the school leader by phone to ask for more information. Typically, Testerman acts as a sounding board during these phone calls as he helps the school or board leader decide what steps he or she needs to take to correct the problem. Depending on the nature of the problem, Testerman may recommend that the leader contact another charter school leader who has expertise in the problem area, or he might suggest the school hire a consultant or take some other direct action.
To address school issues ranging from academic downturn to student discipline, the California Charter Schools division and the NYC Office of Charter Schools both follow structured intervention protocols. In both offices, this process typically starts with a phone call or a visit by a member of the office, specifying the concerns. This initial contact often is followed by a formal notice of concern, in which the authorizer directs the school to decide upon and implement corrective action by a particular date (called a "Performance Improvement Plan" in NYC). Staff members will generally assist the school in taking the corrective action if the school requests assistance. If the agreed-upon improvements are not completed by the target date, the school may be given a notice of probation, which typically lasts one year. Thereafter, if the problem is still not corrected, the charter can be reviewed and possibly revoked.
In practice, interventions by the current NYC charter office staff in daily operations usually relate to facilities issues. Because so many of NYC charter schools share space with district schools, the authorizing staff members often are called upon to serve as advocates for the charter school's use of certain space. Sometimes, however, such staff members intervene on behalf of the district to require the charter operator to change its use of such space to comply with the original agreement regarding both schools' use of facilities. For example, if students of the charter school are using the school gym, but were not allocated use of this space in the original agreement, a member of the authorizing staff will meet with both school directors and work out a compromise that serves the best interests of all children.
Based on its early experiences, FSU's charter office also has developed specific guidelines for addressing problems that arise in its schools. In its first years of authorizing, the staff addressed an ongoing lack of compliance at one of its schools simply by meeting with the school's board and suggesting that it replace the school director. The intervention was successful in that case, but since then, FSU has developed a more structured plan for intervention. This plan involves an initial phone call to the school director or a board member to make them aware of the problem, followed by a formal letter outlining the specific practices or requirements that need to be addressed (issues usually concern compliance or financial management). Schools are given one year to correct the problem, during which FSU staff carefully document all of their communication with the school. If the school is unable to correct the problem by the end of that year, FSU will recommend revocation of its charter.
Fortunately, FSU also has found over the years that ongoing involvement in its schools and careful attention to compliance throughout the year heads off many challenges that would call for such an intervention. It has only had to close one school (out of the 16 it has authorized) for a failure to address major governance and organizational problems.
"Constant ongoing monitoring is the best substitute for significant intervention." —David Harris, former director of the Indianapolis mayor's charter schools office
Base decisions regarding intervention, renewal, and closure on solid evidence
Several of these offices have been faced with the difficult decision of whether to close a school that has not lived up to the terms of its charter. In some cases, clear financial mismanagement has been the reason. In other cases, schools have not met their academic goals. In many cases, a combination of factors, operational and academic, is the cause. In every case, however, closing a school has caused the office to carefully rethink many of its earlier processes. James Merriman, the former director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, says, "Every time we've closed a school, it's clearly a reflection of a failure on our part to make the right decision." For this reason, he and his staff use each nonrenewal decision as an opportunity to reflect on their approval standards, oversight and intervention policies, and renewal decision-making.
According to several of these organizations, the most difficult decisions they face involve schools that have not lived up to their charter but still are a better option for parents than the other schools that their children would attend (e.g., as when the charter schools have a safer school climate). Understandably, parents in this situation are likely to argue vigorously against the closure decision, resulting in contentious public hearings and negative media attention.17 Authorizers that have experienced controversial school closings agree that without solid evidence that schools have not met the terms of their charters, they would be unable to see their way through such situations.
In 2005, the mayor's office of Indianapolis revoked a school's charter due to numerous problems experienced over a two-year period, including failure to report enrollment and attendance records, graduating students who did not meet requirements, poor student test scores, lack of certified teachers, and a debt of almost $150,000. Despite the preponderance of evidence that the school had not met the terms of its charter, the prospect of this closure sparked great community and parent resistance. The mayor's office took at least two actions that eased the situation somewhat. First, the mayor and his staff were able to present careful documentation of each problem leading up to the decision to close, and second, they appointed a trustee who managed the process for communicating with parents and closing down the school's affairs.
When SUNY Institute recommends a school for nonrenewal, parents, students, and community members have an opportunity to present their concerns to the institute staff in a public forum. Each time a charter has not been renewed, a group of parents has requested a hearing. The SUNY Institute's staff members have found over the years that many parents and community members do not fully understand the reasons a school can be shut down. So, during these hearings, staff members begin by explaining the charter renewal process and the reasons for their nonrenewal decision. Just as when talking with school personnel about a closure, the SUNY Institute staff members want to ensure that parents clearly understand the institute's expectations and the renewal process. During the hearing, they also give parents an opportunity to be heard and are committed to staying until the last parent leaves.
In the case of one recent nonrenewal, the school had multiple problems, including a lack of programmatic leadership and the lowest test scores in the lowest-performing district in the state. Starting in year one and every year after, the SUNY Institute staff and outside contractors laid out to the school administrators the shortcomings they saw at the school in instruction and student learning and the improbability that the school would be able to make a compelling case for renewal. SUNY Institute staff members directed school leaders to respond with a plan for improvement. The school was unable to institute the type of change or bring in staff with the necessary expertise to improve the school's performance. over time, it became clear that the school did not have the capacity to turn itself around. Institute staff explained these problems and its responses to parents and community members present at a public forum, and thereafter directed the school to close its doors.
In Massachusetts, since the state began granting charters in 1993, six charter schools (out of the 57 it has authorized) have closed. Two of these were not renewed, while two charters were revoked, and two others voluntarily closed their doors. The most recent revocation occurred in 2005, when a school had its charter revoked due to significant under-enrollment, a spiraling deficit, failure to keep adequate records, failure to meet special education and English immersion requirements, and a lack of oversight by its board of trustees. The Charter School Office documented its findings in a report to the Massachusetts Board of Education, which voted unanimously in September 2005 to close the school.
Instead of agreeing with the state's ruling, the school challenged the decision and refused to close, citing the continued support of parents as its rationale for remaining open. The decision then meant administrative hearings for several days, during which the testimony from parents indicated that many of the families that had enrolled their children in the school did not understand the charter school "bargain"— that schools have some increased freedoms in return for increased accountability. despite the testimony of parents, the hearing officer at the hearing ultimately upheld the decision to close.18 Throughout this contentious and difficult process, the Charter School Office was able to rely on its monitoring system and the data it had collected through this system to justify its decision. Had staff members not had these data, they would have been in a much weaker position when the decision was contested.