Closing schools is no easy job

James Goenner

Deciding to close a school is agonizing. It’s like firing someone on steroids. It disrupts the lives of thousands of people — students, families, teachers, administrators, board members, suppliers, lenders, and more. It can also impact neighborhoods and communities.

I know because I lived with the responsibility for holding schools accountable — and ultimately closing them if necessary — for over a decade when I served as the executive director of the Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University.

Concluding that a school needed to be closed was always my worst day on the job. It’s a decision that deserves careful consideration and cannot be made by simply looking at numbers or rankings on a spreadsheet. Facts and professional judgment are indispensable.

At CMU, our team was legally responsible for ensuring the schools authorized by the university fulfilled the academic performance expectations in their charter contract, were good stewards of public funds, and complied with all applicable law. When a school failed to deliver results for kids, we were on it. We looked at multiple measures of school quality and evaluated schools in totality. We examined the school from every angle — academically, financially, and operationally. We made on-site visits and met with board members and school administrators.

Our first goal was always to improve school performance. We found with proper intervention, some additional time, and lots of hard work, some schools could be turned around. But for those that were unwilling or unable to get their act together, the best decision was closure.

Unfortunately, schools that need to be closed rarely throw in the towel and cooperate. More often they resort to politics and personal attacks to garner sympathy for their plight and divert attention from their failings.

And that’s when the job gets really tough — and lonely. When emotions are running high and the school taps its political network, even some of the most ardent advocates of “get tough accountability” vanish when it comes time to publicly support, defend and ensure that the school actually closes. Critics and onlookers will always surface, though, and argue that the decision was made too soon or too late, that it’s too disruptive to the community, that students will end up in worse schools, or that it proves why charter schools shouldn’t even exist.

At CMU, we were prepared for this. We stood firm in our resolve and withstood this pressure. To effectively carry out their responsibilities, the School Reform Office must be prepared, as well.

Alas, closing bad schools is a tough, but necessary, job. But unlike most accountability measures, it gets results. Remembering this won’t make the job easier, but it does ease the agony that comes with the worst day on the job when you know you’re doing the right thing for kids and taxpayers.

James Goenner, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute.