I offer a tip of the hat to the State University of New York (SUNY) Charter Schools Institute for their oversight of a struggling charter school that posed exceedingly tricky politics.
This whole thing was political from the start. The New York City teachers union, the UFT, created the charter school intending to demonstrate that running a school under the city’s collective bargaining agreement was not an impediment to success. It didn’t turn out as planned. The school has struggled. With the exception of the high school from this K-12 endeavor, performance has been unacceptable. Last week the school’s board decided to close the elementary and middle-grade portions of the school.
That is an appropriate action that is in the best interests of the students. It makes sense to close a chronically low-performing charter school. But it is easy to imagine this process devolving into the ugly politics of a proxy fight. That didn’t happen. Credit for the relatively smooth course of events should go to the SUNY authorizing shop–in addition to the board from the school.
One of the strategies SUNY employed, which we have discussed on this site previously, was a short-term renewal with a set of mandatory benchmarks. When the school came up for latest renewal in 2013, it was granted a two-year renewal. The renewal contract listed outcomes that the school had to meet within two years to be renewed. By agreeing to the pre-established standards, both sides agreed the school would close if it did not meet the benchmarks. A similar strategy has also been used in recent years by Denver Public Schools.
At NACSA we generally recommend against short-term renewals of failing schools. Ideally, the original charter contract is based on similar benchmarks. A performance framework, based on multiple measures, articulates metrics that inform the contract. That contract clearly outlines what is expected of every school if it is going to be renewed. SUNY’s leadership and other stakeholders in New York have argued that the first five years is not enough time to have measures of growth. So, the authorizers in the state frequently employ a short-term renewal strategy.
Reasonable people can disagree on these points. Macke Raymond, at CREDO, for example, has argued that the results of a school’s first two or three years is a strong predictor of its performance in the future. And many charter authorizers have managed to build a credible and valid set of data that allows them to close failing charters at the end their first five-year term. We at NACSA recommend building an authorizing system capable of credibly closing a school at the end of its first five-year term.
But sometimes circumstances are different. It could be that a school is on the edge of acceptable performance, or dramatic improvement occurs toward the end of its term without getting it to the standard. Or, as in this case, the larger politics could be really tricky. It doesn’t take union-operation to make politics tricky. I’ve seen 15-year-old charter schools with very established constituencies, major partners that are linked to a school, or the historical context of the educational experience in a particular community, all require authorizers to consider political issues.
In any of these situations, it is easy to imagine the best course of action might be a short-term renewal, with benchmarks that are truly required for renewal. The mutual agreement to the benchmarks, the transparency, and the predictability of the outcome, can collectively generate a situation in which the school and its board chooses not to exercise all its available political muscle to fight closure. Instead, a politically-powerful operator acts as a partner in the orderly closure of their own school.
That’s what happened here, and it is the best outcome for kids. Well done on both sides.
Read about the latest events here.