My friend Sarah makes a point I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of myself:
Bad charters don’t stay open indefinitely because no one has to enroll. Not everyone will necessarily pull kids out of a bad charter, but new people will be less interested and will go other places.
Most bad charters see they’re starting to lose people and then imitate the more successful charters, and improve. It’s a really small percentage (I believe Caroline Hoxby says ~5 percent) that never get with the program.
So… closing bad charters is built into the bottom-up charter school process. It doesn’t have to come in the form of a “Close thou evil charter school!!!” order from above that some charter critics envision.
One of the difficulties of many performance-oriented school reform proposals, such as merit pay is that it’s difficult to measure teacher and school performance quantitatively. So if some public official is in charge of identifying the under-performing charter schools and shutting them down, there’s a risk that they’ll use flawed quantitative measurements and shut down schools that have strengths that aren’t reflected in published statistics—maybe teachers are spending a lot of time helping kids with difficult family situations that will benefit them in the long run but don’t show up in this year’s math test. So a more effective approach is to decentralize the decision about which schools grow and which ones fail by letting the parents pick. Parents see their kids every day, and so they’re likely to have a pretty good idea of whether the school is serving their own kids well. (Obviously some parents lack the education, time, or interest to judge effectively, but these parents are in the minority) And in the aggregate, whether more or fewer parents want to send their kids to a school is likely to be a pretty good indicator of whether the kids are doing a good job.
Also, to address another point made by a couple of readers: the phrase “cheap failures” is infelicitous in this context. I definitely don’t mean to suggest that a failed charter school is painless for the kids in that school. Obviously, it can be quite damaging. Rather, my point is that the charter school model is relatively cheap (in terms of damage to kids’ educational futures) compared to the major alternative: public schools whose kids often have no realistic alternatives, and which are never shut down regardless of how badly they do. If a school is going to fail (and unfortunately, it’s inevitable that some will) I want them shut down in a reasonable amount of time to limit the number of children who are harmed. No plan can guarantee that no children will be harmed, but charters reduce the number of children who get harmed relative to the system that existed before they came on the scene.