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Originally published November 28, 2012 at 8:04 PM | Page modified November 28, 2012 at 10:41 PM

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Group: 1 in 5 charter schools not doing well enough to stay open

A group that oversees more than half of the nation's 5,600 charter schools said as many as one in five U.S. charter schools should be shut down because of poor academic performance.

Bloomberg News

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BOSTON — As many as one in five U.S. charter schools should be shut down because of poor academic performance, according to a group representing states, districts and universities that grant them permission to operate.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers said 900 to 1,300 of the privately run, publicly financed schools should close because they are in the bottom 15 percent of public schools in their states. The Chicago-based group's members — such as the Los Angeles Unified School District and the State University of New York — oversee more than half of the nation's 5,600 charter schools.

The announcement represents a challenge to the fast-growing charter-school movement, created as an alternative to conventional districts and operating without many of their rules. To hold the organizations accountable, states must pass new laws that would shut down poor performers, said Greg Richmond, president of the charter-school organization.

"For all the excellent charter schools, there are also many not serving students well," Richmond said from Washington, D.C., in a briefing with reporters. "That's unacceptable."

The call for closing poor performers carries special weight because it comes from an organization funded by charter-school advocates such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

In November, voters in Washington state narrowly approved Initiative 1240, which will allow 40 charter schools to open in the state over five years. The approval came after state voters three times before — in 1996, 2000 and 2004 — rejected charter schools.

Washington state's charter-school law has a provision meant to keep low performers from staying open here. Barring exceptional circumstances, the law says that a charter's contract should not be renewed if its performance ranks in the bottom 20 percent of Washington's public schools.

Washington is one of the few states with such clauses in their charter-school laws.

But it remains to be seen how the law will play out in practice. The decision will be up to a new statewide charter commission or any school boards that are authorized to approve charter schools. The first charter schools aren't expected to open here until fall 2013 at the earliest, and more likely fall 2014.

About 2 million children, who make up 4 percent of public-school enrollment, attend charter schools, more than three times the number 10 years ago, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans turned to charter schools to overhaul public education. The schools now enroll three-quarters of the city's students, a larger share than in any other U.S. district, according to the alliance. Charter schools in Detroit and Washington, D.C., educate more than 40 percent of students.

A 2010 survey by the consulting company Mathematica Policy Research compared students enrolled at charters with those who applied but weren't admitted. It found that performance was similar in reading and in math, though there were wide variations across schools. A 2009 Stanford University study found that charter students fared worse.

Poor and low-achieving students at charters showed significant gains over peers at traditional public schools, the Mathematica study found. Charters in large urban areas helped students' math achievement. Outside those regions, they had a negative effect.

In California, more students are being educated in the best charter schools than in those that should be closed, Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association, said at the briefing.

The announcement follows debate about whether charter schools are weakening the finances of traditional districts, siphoning off students from the most committed families, promoting racial and economic segregation in public education and failing to provide equal access to students with disabilities. Those are all arguments that opponents of Washington's charter-school measure, including state and local teachers unions, made during the campaign.

The authorizers' group is trying to police against practices that weed out lower-performing students, which can also make charter-school achievement look better than it is, Richmond said.

"We want to know if games are being played," he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Linda Shaw contributed to this report

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