"It happens more often than you'd think, but it needs to happen more often than it does," says Mark A. Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, a private Atlanta-based accreditation agency that works with about 30,000 schools. In the past five years, the organization has pulled accreditation on four school systems and a dozen private schools, for reasons ranging from poor academic performance to governance to financial fraud.
"It's become more rigorous," says Terry Holliday, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education. "I think there was a time accreditation just meant you had a certain number of library books and staff." Now, he says, "accreditation does look at outcomes."
Accreditation, sort of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for schools, matters to districts because losing it can lead to a state takeover or an exodus of students. For individual high schools, it can mean that students lose a competitive edge as they apply to college.
After the Missouri State Board of Education last September voted to classify Kansas City Public Schools as "unaccredited," city officials spent weeks telling people what losing accreditation wasn't: Students wouldn't forfeit high school diplomas or transcripts, for one thing. They'd still be eligible for college scholarships that sort of approval generally comes not from the state but from private organizations like Elgart's.
But the district had just two years to improve in more than a dozen areas, most of them academic, or risk being taken over. And families could immediately request admission to neighboring school districts at Kansas City's expense.
"We spent a good deal of time in a kind of public relations campaign, if you will," says R. Stephen Green, the city's interim superintendent. The state board's vote became effective earlier this month; 250 miles east, St. Louis schools lost their state accreditation in 2007.
More than a century old, the private accreditation system grew out of Ivy League colleges' desires to have a uniform way to evaluate whether students coming to them from thousands of high schools could actually handle a high-pressure college workload. Fewer than half the states grant schools accreditation, and those that do often rely on private organizations to provide the actual nuts-and-bolts requirements.
The Clayton County, Ga., school district near Atlanta lost its accreditation in 2008 after Elgart's agency issued a report finding that the board was "dysfunctional" and that its leadership was "fatally flawed."
Douglas Hendrix, a district spokesman and former teacher, says board members "were getting too much involved in the day-to-day business as it relates to hiring, as it relates to contracts." The result was a chaotic district where superintendents rarely lasted more than a year Hendrix recalls "too many to count" until the accreditation process helped dissolve the board and bring in a new one.
At the time, the move was nearly unprecedented in the region, but Holliday says that's changing.
"I think you're going to see more schools and districts losing accreditation, rather than less," he says.
What's changed? Holliday says the business community has pushed more aggressively for public schools to improve over the past decade or so.
"They just can't find the folks who have the skills they need to fill the jobs that are available," he says.
Facing pressure from both dwindling enrollments and tight state budgets, Kansas City has actually been operating on provisional accreditation since 2002.
Former superintendent John Covington in 2010 made news when he announced plans to close half of the district's 61 schools.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)