OpinionNational Charter Schools Week  

Greg Richmond: Are Charter School Standards At Risk From Within?

By Greg Richmond | May 3, 2016

The 74 marks National Charter Schools Week (May 1-7) with a series of articles and essays about America’s charter leaders, students and policies. See the full series.
As Emily Litella repeatedly said, “Never mind.”
For the millennials among us, Emily Litella was a sweet, absent-minded character played by Gilda Radner in the early years of Saturday Night Live. She frequently got her facts wrong and, when corrected, would simply reply, “Oh, never mind.”
I recalled Emily Litella as I read The 74’s “Case Study: Rainshadow H.S., a Haven for Nevada’s At-Risk Teens, Now Finds Itself At Risk of Closure.” Replete with heartwarming stories about students who have received a second chance because of Rainshadow, the essay blames Nevada’s school accountability laws for jeopardizing the existence of the school.
There is just one problem with that argument: Rainshadow’s recent problems had nothing to do with the state accountability laws.
As the column points out, last January, the Washoe County School Board staff recommended closing Rainshadow because it had run out of money, not because of academic performance. Ultimately, Rainshadow and the school board found financial solutions that allowed the school to stay open.
Yet, Rainshadow’s reprieve may be temporary. The school performs very poorly on the state’s standard accountability measures for public schools. If it continues to do so, it may be closed in the near future. In Nevada, Rainshadow is not unique among charter schools. The state has the lowest performing charter school sector in the nation. Not, “among the lowest.” The lowest. Yet, over the past three years, not a single charter school has closed.
As a result, Nevada has enacted tough new charter school accountability legislation. My organization, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, supported the legislation and now rates Nevada’s law high on charter school accountability. Nevada’s state leaders should be applauded for passing tough accountability legislation that will raise the bar for charter school performance.
Nonetheless, we know that alternative schools like Rainbow are often jeopardized if their state does not recognize that they serve students with extraordinary challenges. That is why we produced the report, “Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence-Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools.” In fact, Nevada is implementing precisely this kind of alternative accountability system right now.
The answer for alternative schools cannot be no accountability or accountability based on heart-rending anecdotes. The answer must be a real accountability system that demands a quality education for these students as well.
Yet The 74’s story on Rainshadow reveals a disturbing trend among some charter school advocates. Time and again we hear, “Our students come to us far behind;” “Standardized tests don’t tell the full story;” “We can’t expect all these kids to graduate;” “We just need more time.”
These are the same arguments that defenders of failing schools have been making for decades. There should be no place in the charter school community for them.
If we, charter school operators and advocates, do not offer better results for students, eventually the public will tell charter schools, “Never mind.”
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