Choose to improve all schools (copy)

High school graduates exit the Performing Arts Center to crowds of family and friends on June 4, 2015.

Fourteen years after it started, New Orleans’ charter-school experiment reached a milestone this summer, when the Big Easy became the first major U.S. city that doesn’t offer any traditional schools.

Perhaps more significantly, new research published last month concluded that the charter movement — and more specifically school officials’ aggressive approach to failing charters — was responsible for almost all of the remarkable improvements the district has seen in student performance.

“Put another way,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported, “New Orleans students’ average test scores have improved over time because the state has regularly closed or taken over failing schools and replaced them with higher-performing ones.”

The Tulane University study found that education results improved more when failing schools were turned over to new management than when they tried to fix themselves.

“Close or take over the school, open another one, close and take over a school, open another one: You keep doing that,” Tulane researcher Douglas Harris told NPR. “If you’re doing it well, then those opening schools are better than the ones that you’re closing and taking over, then that’s going to lead to improvement in the city over time. And it did.”

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The findings can’t be extrapolated to all schools, but they offer an important reminder for S.C. legislators that the charter-school movement is built on a two-part equation. Charter schools receive public funding but are free to make hiring, firing, curricula, scheduling and a host of other decisions free from state or district requirements. In return for that freedom — and in acknowledgment that charter schools can open in places where taxpayers have already spent money to build and operate a regular public school that could accommodate all the available students — they’re supposed to be closed if they don’t live up to the promises in their charters.

South Carolina was never great at enforcing the responsibility requirement; it’s far too difficult to revoke a charter before it comes up for renewal, every 10 years. But our willingness to demand accountability suffered a potentially fatal blow when the private Erskine University exploited a loophole in the law to become a charter school “authorizer” — and promptly rescued several failing schools that were about to be closed by the state’s official authorizer. For two years now, the Legislature has refused to close that loophole, although lawmakers did approve a plan this year that might result in some closures.

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Closing failing charter schools is important because they receive millions of dollars in taxpayer funding that could otherwise be used to improve regular public schools. It’s essential because parents are led to believe that charter schools are superior to public schools, when in some cases they’re taking their kids out of traditional public schools that are better than the charter schools.

It’s also worth keeping these findings in mind as legislators struggle with how to improve traditional public schools that are failing. We probably can’t find qualified parents or reputable charter school companies to take over those schools, but the state Education Department can take control and work with the community to turn around those schools. In fact, it’s currently doing that in a handful of districts. But it needs firmer legal footing, a few more options and the ability to make sure it doesn’t turn around schools only to have to return control to the same people who oversaw their failure in the first place.

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