Planning Supports Crucial to Charter Success
Enrollment in South Carolina’s public charter schools grew by 65 percent in 2009 to a total of more than 9,000 students. Next year’s enrollment is expected to top 12,000 students, more than doubling our state’s total in just two years.
A key catalyst for this growth was the election two years ago of a state superintendent who made a concerted push to increase the number and variety of curriculum choices available to students and their parents. Shortly after taking office in 2007, State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex created a new Office of Public School Choice to help local school districts create more choices within our public schools, including charter schools, single-gender classes, Montessori classes, and academic magnet programs.
The track record of South Carolina’s charter schools is similar to those of other states: some have succeeded, and some have not. But I would argue that both of these results can be seen as signs of progress. A charter school with strong community support and solid academic growth is a sign that the movement is working. But shutting down a low-performing or mismanaged charter school can also be viewed as a positive sign. A central tenet of the charter school philosophy is that in return for autonomy over its daily operations, a charter school is held accountable for producing results. If a charter school does not perform or is mismanaged, it is closed.
Why Charters Fail
In South Carolina, 15 public charter schools have closed either through voluntary relinquishment of their charters or through charter termination proceedings (nonrenewal or revocation). To better understand why these schools failed, the Office of Public School Choice studied the factors that led to their demise.
The results of that study (MS Word) can be found on the South Carolina Department of Education’s Web site. The study shows that average life span of South Carolina's closed charter schools was only 2.7 years, with 11 of the 15 schools closing before completing their second years. This study revealed that the overwhelming majority of these schools closed due to one factor—failure to plan properly before opening. Improper planning is evident in three interrelated areas that often lead to closure:
- Low enrollment, which causes a financial deficit.
- Instability in leadership, which diminishes the mission focus and leads to poor student achievement.
- Governance problems, which decrease stakeholders’ trust in the viability of the school.
If poor planning occurs in any of these three areas, the frequent result is a downward spiral that spreads into other aspects of a school's culture. All too often, the diagnosis is terminal. For instance, if a charter school accrues substantial financial debt, that deficit often leads to removal of the administrator, which fosters instability. Until a new administrator is hired, the dearth of leadership causes the school to drift from its mission. And drifting from the mission directly and adversely influences the charter school's potential for academic achievement. Substantial deficits also affect academic achievement by forcing budget cuts that are most visible in the classroom.
Some variation of this downward spiral could be detected in all of South Carolina's 15 closed charter schools. Accordingly, groups hoping to open charter schools should carefully consider the responsibilities involved before drafting a charter application.
Realizing the negative effect of poor planning, the South Carolina State Board of Education enacted regulations that require a full year of planning for any charter developer group that decides to submit an application. For instance, if a school wishes to open in August 2011, its application is due no later than May 1, 2010. This time frame allows plenty of time for review by the state's Charter School Advisory Committee and the applicant’s proposed sponsoring district.
The charter developer groups receive intensive training during this planning year from the South Carolina Department of Education on topics that include board governance, fiscal responsibility, marketing, common causes of closure, and implementing educational programs. The state is currently in its first year with this modification, and we will monitor the results closely. While we still have much work to do with public charter schools, we have created a solid foundation.
As the demand for public charter schools increases, additional challenges must be addressed. How do we ensure that all students in the state have access to charters, especially in rural areas with little infrastructure? How do we ensure swift expansion of charters does not compromise their academic integrity? How do we assist sponsor districts in monitoring compliance with granted charters? And how do we ensure that future leaders are prepared for the differences between public charter and traditional school administrative roles? By finding viable solutions to meet these challenges, we increase the academic opportunities for all children who attend public schools of choice.
Joel E. Medley is the public charter school associate in the South Carolina Department of Education’s Office of Public School Choice.