Failing Charter Schools: Victims of Unfair Regulation or Blights on Public Education?

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Education trends come and go, and for several years now, it's been in vogue to grade schools.

In 2011, as part of a new school accountability system adopted by state lawmakers, the Arizona Department of Education began issuing A though F letter grades ranking its public schools. The new system replaced the old program of "legacy labels," with which schools were ranked "excelling," "highly performing," "performing," "underperforming," or "failing to meet standards."

Today, the Department of Education issues each public school a letter grade, largely based on results from the weeklong state-mandated AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) testing that students undergo at Arizona's 1,478 district schools and 526 charter schools each year.

The post-2011 public school accountability measures are tougher than the previous ones. The new measures factor in students' long-term academic growth as well as current test scores, and they specifically examine growth among schools' lowest-achieving students.

Under the old system, Jefferson Academy coasted along, earning a "performing" rating several years running. But when the new system was instituted, the school found itself facing its worst-ever review: a D grade.

D typically is the lowest grade a school can receive, with Fs reserved for repeat offenders. A school that receives Ds for three consecutive years is in jeopardy of being labeled an F by the Department of Education.

On this year's report cards, released in October and assessing the 2013-14 school year, about a third of schools received A grades, a third received B grades, and the remaining third received mostly Cs and Ds.

But 46 public schools -- both district and charter schools are public -- were labeled failing. Several schools statewide still have grades pending, and many schools are in the process of appealing their grades.

Eight of this year's failing schools were charters. And at least 20 other charters received Ds, putting them on the path to Fs if they don't turn things around in the coming years.

Just what happens to a failing school depends heavily on the type of school in question. Though all public schools are assessed by the state -- Arizona statute doesn't provide any authority for the state to monitor private schools or the education of home-schooled students -- only charters face being shut down over bad grades.

Low-scoring district schools are put on state-monitored improvement plans, but they are never closed. State law allows for solutions teams -- groups of master teachers, curriculum experts, and financial consultants -- to be sent to D and F schools to help them develop action plans.

And while state law also allows for the takeover of such schools -- essentially, personnel changes implemented from above -- this option has never been used for academic reasons, Department of Education officials say. Takeover has been used only in cases involving financial mismanagement of district school assets.

Closing failing district schools just isn't a viable option. All students have the right to a public education, department officials said in a written statement, and "the 'backbone' of the state's public education system is the district school system."

But with charters, when school performance is subpar for three straight years, state law requires charter-issuing boards to begin proceedings to either bring the school up to par or to revoke the school's charter.

The charter revocation process takes an average of 15 months. Depending on whom you talk to, that might be good or bad.

Some education reform advocates believe that under the current system, by the time attempts to close a school begin, a three-year track record of poor academic performance has already been established. If anything, they argue, the process to shutter these charters should be streamlined to save kids from more time in shoddy schools.

Others, including leaders at the schools whose charters are being revoked, argue that their efforts to help students improve don't always come across in test scores alone, particularly in schools with high populations of special needs students. Speedily shutting these schools down, they say, means that kids who struggled elsewhere are left with even fewer places to turn.

"Maybe our kids are a little bit different," Jeffrey Blay Sr. says. "But if we didn't think our son was getting an education here, he wouldn't be here. We're not here just to pawn him off somewhere. He's here because I want him here."

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Monica Alonzo and Ashley Cusick