M. Royce Van Tassell: Closing a failing charter school is a feature, not a bug

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) The American International School of Utah will close on Aug. 15 after years of financial struggles.

The recent hullaballoo over closing the American International School of Utah has been entertaining, if not terribly informative. Critics assail charters closing as a problem, as “gambling with children.” By contrast, they argue, at least district schools don’t “vanish.” Such criticisms simply fail to understand the much greater risk in allowing failing schools to persist. Precisely because we can and do close a failing charter school, the risk of persistent failure goes down.

The shortcomings in public education are part of the fabric of our lives. We may be scandalized when a teacher is caught engaging in inappropriate behavior with a student, but no one is surprised. It’s not quite common place, but we’re used to it.

More than half incoming college students take at least one remedial class during their freshmen year. And those are just the ones who graduated high school. Many students don’t graduate. Somehow even the “cream of the crop” didn’t receive the education they needed to succeed as freshmen in college.

Again, this isn’t news. Everyone knows of a school that fails, and has failed, for a long time. When reformers say it’s time to close a failing school, defenders of the status quo trot out the siren song: “Just give us one more year. All we need is a little more money.” While that song almost always lulls policy makers into granting relief, failing schools continue to fail the children in their classrooms.

Charter schools are based on a different premise. Sometimes we shamelessly copy what’s worked elsewhere. Sometimes we try something completely novel, perhaps even a little bit crazy. Some of those efforts succeed, and should be copied.

In other cases, it’s better to shut it down and learn how to not make the same mistakes. This is precisely what I mean when I say that closing a charter school is a feature, not a bug. We should close failing schools. No child should have to attend a failing school; if we can’t fix that school, for the sake of the students who are and otherwise would attend it, it’s best to close the school.

Given the persistence of at least mediocrity, and at times outright failure in public education, it’s clear that doing something different (“innovation”!) is the only way our children will get the schools they deserve. To be clear, this isn’t different just to be different. We seek different because what we are doing now just isn’t enough. We need to do better. We need to change.

Charter schools make good on that premise. Wailing and gnashing of teeth come with the tough decision to close a school; change always does. But for too long all of us in public education have succumbed to the siren song of “one more dollar, one more year.” All of us in public education need the ultimate accountability of closure, if we fail.

In the case of AISU, the school made some fundamental financial and administrative errors. They implemented a novel structure, combining private investment capital, a private school and a public school. If it had worked, we would have wanted to copy it. But it didn’t.

And while no one has said it publicly, I think it’s time someone did. AISU’s failures were not just the financial issues that forced its closure. The school’s academic performance was indefensible. Perhaps they could have turned things around through the Legislature’s turnaround process. That’s a difficult row to hew, but it’s been done before. But it is hardly cause for mourning that a financially and academically failing school is no longer operating. That’s a feature, not a bug, of charter schools.

Royce Van Tassell | executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools

M. Royce Van Tassell is executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. For two weeks, he was the last board chair of AISU.