OPINION | Close poor performing charters to create better choices for low-income kids

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A bi-partisan bill is making its way through the Minnesota legislature to close the state’s persistently lowest performing charter schools. The effort is not led by charter school opponents but by charter supporters, who believe that the charter sector holds tremendous promise to help close the nation’s and Minnesota’s appalling achievement gap.

Minnesota has dozens of high-performing and innovative charter schools that offer quality choices for Minnesota families. Perhaps the sector’s greatest innovation is the growing number of charters using their flexibility to close the achievement gap.

In fact, in several yearly ‘Beating the Odds’ rankings for Minnesota schools, as many as eight out of the top 10 public schools closing the achievement gap are charters. Schools like Minneapolis’ Harvest Prep/Best Academy, Hiawatha Academies and Global Academy are some of the state’s highest performing public schools, despite serving 85 percent or more low-income students. 

This mirrors national data as well. In New Orleans, 13 of the top 15 public schools are charters; in Denver, seven of the top 10 public schools are charters. Houston, New York and Chicago all have similar statistics.

So that’s the good news.

The charter sector’s performance is often rightly criticized as being uneven at best. There are too many weak charter schools and it is time for the charter community itself to fix this problem. 

It is also important to identify and appropriately handle schools explicitly designed to serve extremely at-risk students like drop outs and teen parents.  We need appropriate standards for these schools that hold them accountable for achieving strong  and measurable outcomes while recognizing there are many ways to help a young person prepare for their future.

We must also understand and honor our moral obligation to the communities impacted by school closings by collaborating with stakeholders to ensure we mitigate the disruption by maintaining and opening better schools to replace the closed ones. These are the sorts of challenges that rigorous authorizers must address.  Accordingly, the pending legislation provides authorizers appropriate discretion as they close failing schools and create better options.

To that end, Charter School Partners (CSP) core work is  creating a new generation of high-performing charter schools serving low-income students. Since 2010, CSP has already helped launch a dozen new schools in the Twin Cities. In addition to its CharterStart Initiative, CSP has put together one of the nation’s best ‘new schools’ incubator  programs — an effort that is preparing talented and passionate school leaders to open schools. By 2016, CSP’s Fellowship program alone will have helped start ten new schools in Minneapolis committed to closing the achievement gap.

Closing low-performing schools and opening new, high-performing schools is also the focus of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ (NACSA) One Million Lives Campaign. The campaign is dedicated to providing one million more children the chance to attend a great school that will prepare them for success throughout their lives. NACSA is also working to support this goal by advocating for stronger laws that will support smarter growth and stronger accountability including the Charter School Partners bill to increase authorizer accountability here in Minnesota.

Closing chronically low-performing charters and providing solid educational options for all Minnesota children is the right thing to do. Let’s have the courage to move forward with this bold initiative as a public service to Minnesota’s least-served children.

Alex Medler is VP Policy and Advocacy with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and Al Fan is the Executive Director of the Minneapolis-based Charter School Partners.