Charter Restarts: Enforcing Charter School Accountability

August 28, 2013

By Suraj Patel, 2013 Education Pioneer Fellow

the_role_of_charter_restarts_in_school_reformIn its nine years, Harlem Day Charter School had seen nine principals at the helm. Despite these principals’ efforts, only a quarter of the students scored proficient on the state math exam, and even fewer on the reading. In a honorable and necessary move, Harlem Day’s Board Chair, Ben Lambert, called the state authorizer with a plan to heed his commitment and obligation of providing a quality school choice to Harlem Day’s students. His plan: replace the entire board (himself included) and turn the school over to a high performing charter operator, Democracy Prep. Harlem Day’s authorizer, The State University of New York (SUNY), agreed, and Harlem Day soon became Harlem Prep.

Researchers from Public Impact, funded by NewSchools Venture Fund, recently released a report introducing a strategy for restarting charter schools that aren’t delivering on their critical promise to deliver a high quality education for students. The report profiles five charter school restarts, including Harlem Day. As Ben Lambert proposed to SUNY, a restarting charter school retains all its students and assets, while the school operator and governing board are refreshed. In doing so, restarts allow the school’s governing board to maintain its commitment to accountability and its promise to provide a quality school choice to families, while sparing them excessive disruption.

Turnarounds, closures; it’s always trying and intricate work when a school attempts critical and sweeping procedures to renew accountability. Restarts are no exception. They require successful collaboration across multiple charter school governing boards, the local authorizing agency, and sometimes philanthropists. The most challenging aspect is however, also the most critical. Restarts are most successful when the outgoing board believes in the restart and therefore helps, rather than hinders, the process.

Why in the world would that be challenging? Well, it requires that the outgoing board put pride aside and own the fact that they have not fulfilled a solemn promise to students. It demands tremendous courage from them, and particularly the board chair, to face supporters, admit failure and cede control.

Challenges aside, Public Impact found and profiled five active restarts for The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform. While still in their infancy, the report provides vignettes describing the circumstances surrounding the restarts as well as each schools’ process. Beyond these five, other restarts are beginning to take shape in New Orleans and D.C.

As with all policies, misuse and abuse ends in more harm than good. If used solely to avoid closure, restarts may actually decrease charter accountability, rather than increase. If authorizes become overly prescriptive, restarts may decrease charter autonomy. Furthermore, poorly defined or lax standards from operators for demonstrating success at the outset of a restart may lead to CMOs and charters growing opportunistically, without ensuring that quality can be maintained throughout the expansion. Public Impact’s study recognizes such potential risks and details several recommendations for operators and authorizers to avoid such pitfalls.

Restarts are not a cure all, or easy fix for a foundering school. Undertaking a restart is a difficult and often painful remedy to specific problem unlikely to mend on its own. Through the informed and responsible use of restarts, otherwise healthy charters can continue to improve, thereby building a more robust field of high quality school choices for families.