California has been a hospitable state for charter schools, approving hundreds of them on the understanding that they would provide better educational options for students who were otherwise stuck in abysmal, unsafe schools, and that they would model innovative ideas for the public school system. And in many cases, that's precisely the way it has worked.
But there are steep variations in the quality of these schools, which are publicly funded but free from many state regulations. As a Stanford University study found last year, some do a better job than the public schools their students would have attended, some do worse, and a large number do about the same. The school districts that approve the charters often ignore mediocre performance when the time comes for reauthorization.
To its credit, the California Charter Schools Assn. has long recognized that weeding out low-performing charters promotes both better education and a better reputation for the charter movement. Unfortunately, legislation that it supported to accomplish that died this year.
Now the state Board of Education is taking up the cause. Under a proposal it will consider in September, the board would conduct a yearly review of all charter schools that are at least 5 years old and that fall that year within the lowest-performing 10% of schools statewide and the lowest 20% of schools with similar student demographics. It could choose to close any or all of those schools.
More accountability for charters is long overdue, but the standards under consideration by the state board are at once too harsh and too lenient. No school should be judged on a single year's test results; at minimum, the board should consider two years worth of results. At the same time, why would we allow a charter school that has been operating for at least five years to have scores in the bottom fifth among schools that have students with similar learning challenges, such as poverty or lack of English fluency? At this point, the proposed standards would affect only 18 of the state's more than 800 charter schools; California has a lot more disappointing charter schools than that. A more reasonable measure would be schools that fall in the bottom 20% statewide, and bottom 40% compared with similar schools.
It's just as important to close charter schools that aren't outperforming public schools as it is to support and promote the ones that are. The public schools lose out each time a new charter opens, in the form of fewer students and, thus, less per-pupil funding. That's a price worth paying when charter schools are raising the bar for California education, but the state should not tolerate charter schools that provide mediocre to poor results.