Failure is an option

July 28, 2010 9:48AM

Law Clerk with the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Will Hines discusses how the recent failure of a Tennessee charter school will actually benefit the charter system, and ultimately improve Tennessee education. This article originally appeared in The Nashville City Paper on July 26. by Will Hines On June 30, Nashville Global Academy became the second charter school in the state — and the first in Nashville — to shut down. From its inception, the school was plagued with administrative and financial failings. Shortly after opening, the school added a fourth-grade class without authorization, lacked enough bus drivers to transport students to and from school, and caused concern when a forgotten 7-year-old student was left on a bus. The school racked up approximately $400,000 in debt in its first and only year. Despite these problems, NGA’s closure is a positive step toward accountability in Tennessee’s education system, and proof that Tennessee’s charter system is working. In free market economies, businesses routinely fail when they are unable to sustain themselves. If a business cannot meet a demand or produce a good or service that meets the expectations of consumers, it will quickly cease to exist. Good businesses thrive; bad businesses fail. The same model should hold true for education, even though it rarely does in the public sector. Public schools propped up with tax dollars are allowed to continue churning out students woefully underprepared for the real world. If many of these schools were not sheltered by government protection, they would shut down because of their poor performance. The schools’ students would then transfer to other, more effective schools, finally receiving the education they deserve. Instead, these failing schools carry on despite their inability to perform their only task — to educate students. Although some may fear that school transfer would hinder a student’s ability to learn, a recent study of Chicago public-school closings provides a strong, but qualified, rebuttal. Chicago, which routinely closes troubled public schools, will close 14 this year alone. This makes it a model city for such a study. Using data from 18 schools, researchers at the University of Chicago determined that students who transferred from troubled schools to high-performing schools did not suffer academically. In fact, these students flourished, attaining higher than expected reading and math levels. While Nashville public schools have not readily accepted the benefits of school closure, charter schools continue to perform more in line with the free market approach. While still considered public schools, charter schools are independently run. They operate with their own board of directors, a flexible curriculum, and often receive significant private funding. Unlike public schools that are allowed to languish for years with low achievement, NGA’s closure demonstrates that charter schools are subject to stricter rules. During the 2009-2010 school year, the Tennessee Department of Education listed 30 Davidson County public schools as “high priority.” High priority status indicates a school’s failure to reach state benchmarks for two or more consecutive years. Ten of these schools have failed to meet state benchmarks for at least three years in a row. Additionally, only a small percentage of schools escape the high priority label each year. Sixty-eight percent of these public schools retained their troubled status in 2009. Also, unlike poorly performing public schools that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charter schools are accountable for their own debt. Metro Nashville has no duty to pay off any of NGA’s debt, including money owed to employees. NGA and schools like it are not always bailed out by public funds when they fail. If Nashville citizens want to continue to diversify and improve their education options, they should support the expansion and improvement of charter schools. This support entails allowing poor charter schools to fail, just as the free market anticipates that bad businesses will fail. Though a difficult decision, shutting down a charter school proves that Tennessee demands accountability, so as to ensure the best results for its students. Troubled Nashville schools are too important not to be allowed to fail. Will Hines is a research associate at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy organization.