Charter schools fail at astounding rate, report says

More than 850,000 students were displaced during a 28-year period from those schools closing, according to research from the Network for Public Education.
By: | August 6, 2020
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The Network for Public Education released a report on Thursday that shows charter schools across the United States failed half the time during a 28-year stretch and more than one quarter of them folded within the first five years.

The study, Broken Promises: An Analysis of Charter School Closures from 1999-2017, also shows how initial investment in developing charter schools was often squandereed. Nearly $1 billion of the overall $4 billion given through the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program, “was given to schools that never opened as well as to many that were opened and then closed,” according to the research.

One of the many critical takeaways from the NPE report is the effect that the closures had on students. More than 850,000 children, including many from lower-income and minority areas, were displaced during that period because of charter school shutdowns.

“I had students whose high school experience was completed at three different schools because of closing after closing,” said Dountonia Batts, an NPE Action Board member and former Indiana charter school teacher, agreed with the findings of the report. “The students who often feel the hurt first are in black and brown communities, where the charter product is cynically peddled as a civil rights solution.”

In performing the study, policy researcher Ryan Pfelgler analyzed statistics from the Common Core of Data, pinpointing failures at 3-, 5-, 10- and 15-year marks, while highlighting three economically challenged cities – Detroit, Milwaukee and Tucson, Ariz. His team culled through records of more than 2 million charter schools. They found that charter schools that failed did so due to a number of factors, including academic accountability, “mismanagement and fraud.”

“If we added closures prior to 1999 and subsequent to 2017, it is likely that one million students have been displaced,” he said.

Added NPE Executive Director Carol Burris: “Even by year five, less time than it takes for a child to complete elementary school, 27% of new charter schools had disappeared.”

The NPE and researchers offered a number of recommendations beyond their extensive study, to further understand the impact closures have had on students and their communities, including:

  • Creating a federal database to track the closing of charter schools
  • Study further the financial costs to families who invest their time and money in activities and items required by those schools
  • More closely investigate schools and potential illegal activities before those schools shut down.

“The public school should be a stable institution in every community, always there for children and families,” said education historian Diane Ravitch. “Unfortunately, as this report shows, charter schools are inherently unstable. Charters fail for a variety of reasons, mainly because they are a market mechanism, like shoe stores or restaurants—here today, gone tomorrow.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration.