America’s Charter Schools Have A Commitment Problem
It happened again. This time in Milwaukee. Students at the Universal Academy for the College Bound Webster Campus returned to find themselves in a completely different school, because a charter management company had decided they’d rather move on than finish out their contract for the year.
Universal Companies took with them their books and their technology. Milwaukee Public Schools filled in the gaps and the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association â€• you know, that damn union that only worries about adult interests â€• stepped in to help the staff.
It could have been worse. In other places it has been worse. The company gave MPS a warning ahead of time â€• almost a full month’s notice. And they handed the school back to MPS rather than simply locking the door.
And if you’re thinking, “Well, of course they did that â€• what sort of monster would close a building with no notice,” then you haven’t been following charter schools much. Charters don’t have to explain themselves when they close, like these two closures in Indiana â€• parents demanded an explanation and were ignored. Or this similar story from Philly. And these schools at least finished the year â€• here’s a charter that closed up shop in September. Here’s a story about a charter in North Carolina that had to close mid-year mostly because they got caught lying about enrollment in order to get double the money they were entitled to; parents were informed less than 48 hours before the school closed its doors. Here’s a Florida school that closed suddenly and without explanation in May of a school year. Or this Ohio charter that closed mid-year without warning. Just google “charter school closes unexpectedly” and watch the stories pile up.
But those are anecdotes. If you want to see the big picture, look at this reporting from the Center for Media and Democracy’s Mediawatch that took some simple available data from NCES to show how many charters had closed between 2000 and 2013. There’s an interactive map that lets you drill down, but the grand total is in the neighborhood of 2,500. Two-thousand-five-hundred charter schools closed â€• and that’s not counting the schools from the past several years. That includes schools that closed during the school year or schools that folded at the end of the year.
Or the recent report on charter schools from NEA, which shows what percentage of charters have closed as a function of how many years they’ve been open â€• after one year, 5% of charters have been closed. At ten years, it’s 33%. When we get to thirteen years, 40% of charters have shut their doors. In other words, a third of charter schools close their doors before they are a decade old.
This seems to be a feature of charter schooling that comes as a shock and surprise to parents. I suspect that’s because one of the most basic things we expect from a school, particularly one that tries to bill itself as a public school as many charters do, is that it will be around basically forever. We expect to be able to go back to the schools we attended; if we can’t, that’s considered a notable loss, a sign that something bad happened to that school or community. It is one of the things we expect from a school that we rarely name â€•
But modern charters are not public schools, and they do not make a public school commitment to stay and do the work over the long haul. They are businesses, and they make a business person’s commitment to stick around as long as it makes business sense to do so. That does not make them evil, but it does make them something other than a public school. And it underlines another truth â€• students are not their number-one priority.
Some modern charter operators claim that these school closures are a feature, not a bug. The system is working; the invisible hand is weeding the garden. But that ignores the real disruption and confusion and damage done to children and families that must search from school to school. Instead of the excitement and joy of going back to school to see friends and favorite teachers, students face the uncertainty of not knowing which school they’ll attend, how long they’ll attend it, learning their way around, even as they wonder when this will all happen again. If school is a sort of second family, charter schools can be an unstable family that moves every six months with parents always on the verge of divorce.
Some charters are born to be train wrecks â€• not only do educational amateurs get involved in charter schools, but business amateurs do as well. But very few are born with the intention of lasting for generation after generation, which is exactly what we expect of public schools. When Betsy DeVos says that she values families and choice over institutions, this is exactly what she is rejecting â€• a commitment to stand by those families and communities for generations, to be an institution that brings stability and continuity to a community. More importantly, an institution that says, “When you need us, we will be right here. You can count on us, because we are committed.”
Commitment matters in all relationships. It matters in schools. Parents and students and community members and taxpayers have a right to expect commitment from their schools. If charters want to pretend to be public schools, they should step up and make a commitment greater than, “We’ll be right here as long as it suits us. On the day it doesn’t suit us anymore, we’ll be gone. Good luck to you.”