Some recently proposed changes to charter school law have raised the eyebrows of advocates for high quality, accountable charter schools.

Moving through the state legislature is a proposal that would jettison a statutory requirement for charters’ performance to be reviewed every five years. Instead, the proposal would mandate that a performance review take place at some point before the expiration of a school’s charter—a change that some say could allow bad actors to fly under the radar for too long.

The proposal would also change the way low-performing charter schools are identified and includes a loophole whereby continually low-performing schools can operate indefinitely so long as they meet academic growth benchmarks or provide strategic plans (approved by the State Board of Education) for academic improvement toward which they are making progress.

On its face, it would appear that the proposed changes to charter school law weaken accountability and oversight for these schools—which, by the way, are public but are able to operate without all of the same rules and regulations under which local public schools function—all in the name of innovation and better educational opportunities.

These proposals even prompted a response from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). The organization issued a letter to state lawmakers outlining the ways in which accountability could be compromised and declared that such action “undermines the policy component of a healthy charter sector.”

Some say that’s not the case, however, and that the proposed changes actually strengthen accountability for charter schools.

As with most cases, when it comes to the law—it’s complicated.

Review and renewal of charter schools

Current law stipulates that charter schools’ performance has to be reviewed by the state every five years. House Bill 242 changes that requirement so that a review is only necessary once before the expiration of a school’s charter.

Lee Teague, executive director for the NC Public Charter Schools Association, minimized the importance of this statutory change, saying that in practice charter schools’ academic performance is reviewed on an annual basis through a performance framework that was put in place by the State Board of Education as part of their strategic plan.

But that practice is easy enough to change or eliminate with a simple vote because it’s not enshrined in statute.

“If it’s not codified, there’s no guarantee that this practice would continue,” said Jen Saba, director of state policy at NACSA.

With the old law, at least a formal review was mandated at the five year mark. Now it’s possible for a charter school possessing a 10 year charter to operate nine years before a statutorily-mandated review takes place, presuming the State Board of Education were to suddenly abandon its performance framework that calls for annual reviews

It’s probably an unlikely scenario given current calls for more accountability in every aspect of education — but this bill could make it possible.

Low-performing charter schools

But the change that has some folks the most concerned is the one that gets rid of the old criteria for charters’ academic performance, which many charter advocates have cited as arbitrary and not the best benchmark for assessing quality.

The current criteria stipulate that if a charter school’s annual performance composite was below 60 percent for two of the last three years and the school was not meeting academic growth benchmarks, then the school would be labeled “inadequately performing,” thus allowing the state to initiate revocation of the school’s charter.

The new proposed law would instead rely on the classification of low-performing schools that’s now used for traditional public schools, which relies on the A-F school grading model.

But if you think that levels the playing field between traditional public schools and charters, there’s a catch: under the proposed legislation, the State Board of Education wouldn’t have the authority to shutter continually low-performing charter schools solely based on their low performing status, so long as they either a) meet academic growth or b) pitch a plan (that’s adopted by the State Board of Education) for improvement.

So if the state wants to shut down a charter school that is continually performing nowhere near what’s considered proficient in terms of educating its students (even if it’s meeting growth), there have to be other problems at play, too — like financial problems or issues with their governance structure.

Is that good policy? Teague, who says he’s preparing his own letter to lawmakers in support of the change, says yes.

“If a school is meeting growth, then it’s obviously not doing that bad of a job,” said Teague. “And in a lot of the schools that are getting Ds and Fs, a lot of them are drawing from economically disadvantaged areas,” added Teague, saying that the A-F grading model doesn’t rely heavily enough on how schools are doing to help students progress over time, wherever they start out on the academic performance continuum. This is a feeling that is shared by many education policy advocates who sit on both sides of the political aisle — although there hasn’t thus far been enough political will to change the A-F grading formula.

But when I pressed Teague on whether or not it’s still a good idea to allow *very* poor performing charters to limp along with strategic plans in place—and hamstring the state’s ability to shut them down—he said if charters are really doing that poorly, then rest assured that there will certainly be other factors at play as well that will allow the state to close them. Financial scandals, poor governance, etc — all of that would allow the state to initiate the charter revocation process.

But that’s not true in at least one scenario. Rocky Mount Preparatory has been cited by the state for its poor academic performance—and while it does have an improvement plan in place, the state is monitoring its progress and could take action this summer if they don’t improve their academic outcomes.

So, what could happen? NACSA says this loophole that allows bad actors to come up with improvement plans as a means of evading charter revocation just kicks the closure process down the road. Even if improvement plans are put into place, says the letter, research shows failing charters often don’t carry them out successfully.

Several members of the state advisory board that oversees charters expressed concerns about the legislation last week at their monthly meeting in Raleigh.

“[The proposal] makes it even harder to not renew a school that is failing kids,” said chairman Alex Quigley.


*Update: Despite concerns that these measures could weaken accountability for charter schools, the General Assembly passed HB 242 shortly before the close of the 2016 session. Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law on June 30. A final version of the bill can be found here.

To read a summary of all of the bill’s provisions (written by legislative staff) click here.

To read NACSA’s letter to lawmakers about HB 242, click here.


Photo by Nick Amoscato via Flickr Creative Commons.

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