Subtlety Lost on Charter Schools

In Atlanta, a small charter school condemned to death yesterday by the board of education is providing one final lesson: While charters allow some of the nuanced accountability provided by the free market to work, too often it’s the wrecking ball of government that renders the final verdict.

The doomed school — the Achieve Academy in southeast Atlanta — started in 2003 as an affiliate of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a highly regarded network of schools known for their longer days, slavishly devoted teachers, strict discipline, and tremendous success at educating kids in some of the poorest areas of the country.

The KIPP name — like well regarded brand names in all kinds of industries — gave Achieve instant credibility. Over a few years, however, it became clear that Achieve was not living up to KIPP’s standards: It had enrolled too few students to fully implement the KIPP model, and it faced significant financial and leadership problems.

In December 2005, KIPP ended its affiliation with Achieve. It was essentially free-market accountability at work: By separating from Achieve, KIPP made it clear that the school was not up to the program’s high standards, while ultimately leaving it up to parents to determine whether or not they were getting the results that they wanted from the school.

KIPP’s actions, importantly, did not mean that Achieve was a failing school. At the very least, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Achieve’s test results were higher than scores at several of the schools to which its students would go if it closed. Moreover, many parents loved Achieve:

Marsha Ivey said she will try to home school daughter Michaela Bailey, 12, rather than enroll her in King Middle School, the traditional school in her neighborhood. Michaela has blossomed at Achieve from an average student who once struggled in math. “She’s been pushed to her limits,” Ivey said.

Unfortunately, unlike KIPP, in the final analysis the Atlanta School Board couldn’t tailor the accountability it meted out to fit Achieve’s track record. It couldn’t issue subtle punishments and rewards like a market would deliver through the free decisions of parents or organizations like KIPP. It either had to close Achieve, or let it stay open. Sadly for many Achieve students, it went with the former.