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New report finds high closure rates for charter schools over time

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A comprehensive examination released Thursday of charter school failure rates between 1999 and 2017 found that more than one-quarter of the schools closed after operating for five years, and about half closed after 15 years, displacing a total of more than 867,000 students.

The report, using information available from the U.S. Education Department, also found that in three of the poorest cities in the country — Detroit, Tucson and Milwaukee — there were more charter closures in areas with higher rates of poverty than in those with lower rates.

The analysis (see in full below) is the latest in a series of reports on charter schools by the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit organization that advocates for traditional public schools and was co-founded by historian and activist Diane Ravitch. Earlier reports focused on waste and fraud in public charter school funding.

Charter schools, a key element in the “school choice” movement, are financed by the public but privately operated. About 6 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attend charter schools. California has the most charter schools and the most charter students; in Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend such schools. In the nation’s capital, almost half of Washington’s schoolchildren go to charters.

Charter supporters say the 30-year-old movement offers important alternatives to traditional public schools, which educate the vast majority of America’s students, and that the movement is still learning. They say it is inevitable that some charter schools will fail but that the closure rate is less than with privately funded start-up initiatives.

Opponents say there is little public accountability over many charters and that they drain resources from traditional districts. Research shows that student outcomes are, overall, largely the same in charter and traditional public schools, although there are failures and exemplars in both.

Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a state that she believes that the authors of the new report misinterpreted the federal data and came up with a higher closure rate than there really was. She did not say, however, what the actual closure rate was.

She also said that charter schools are meant to be shut if they do not meet accountability standards set by the bodies that authorize them to operate. “It’s a model that puts students and their needs first,” she said. “... As a consequence, charter schools are constantly improving by opening new high-quality schools and closing down under-performing ones.”

Carol Burris, a co-author of the report, said she and her partners on the report did not misinterpret the data as Rees said. She also said that in critiquing closure rates provided by the charter alliance, the report’s authors sometimes came up with lower closure rates for some years than did the alliance. “Overall, the number of closures and openings are not that different than what they reported,” she said.

The Federal Charter School Program has invested close to $4 billion in charter schools since it began giving grants in 1995. Charters had bipartisan support for years, but a growing number of Democrats have pulled back from the movement, citing the fiscal impact on school districts and repeated scandals in the sector.

The Education Department did not immediately respond to a query about the findings. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made expanding alternatives to school districts — including charter schools — her top priority.

In the new report, titled “Broken Promises: An Analysis of Charter School Closures from 1999-2017,″ authors Burris and Ryan Pfleger based their analysis on information from the Education Department’s Common Core of Data, which is the primary database on elementary and secondary education in the United States.

They analyzed groups of schools that opened in the same year and looked at their failure rates at three, five, 10 and 15 years. The findings include:

* Of 77 groups of schools that opened from 1998 to 2014, 18 percent closed by the three-year mark. A large proportion of failures occurred by the completion of the first year.

* By the five-year mark, the closure rate had jumped to more than 1 in 4 charter schools.

* By the 10th year, 40 percent of charter schools had closed.

* In the available data, five groups of charter schools reached the 15-year mark, and by this point, one in two of those schools were gone. Failure rates ranged from 47 percent to 54 percent.

Earlier reports from the Network for Public Education detailed fraud and waste in charter schools, finding that the U.S. government had wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons.

It also found that oversight of federal charter school funds by the Education Department was lax and that the state with the most charters that received public funding but never opened was Michigan, DeVos’s home state.

Burris, a co-author of the new report, is executive director of the Network for Public Education and a former award-winning New York principal. She has been chronicling the charter movement for years on this blog. Pfleger, the other co-author, is an education policy researcher.

(Update: adding comment from charter advocacy group)

More to read:

Charter schools and their management companies won at least $925 million in federal coronavirus funding, data shows

Report: Federal government wasted millions of dollars on charter schools that never opened

Here’s the full new report: