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Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Report Urges More Oversight Of Mass. Charter Schools

Report Urges More Oversight Of Mass. Charter Schools

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A recent report from the Massachusetts inspector general criticizes charter schools' business operations and the state's oversight of those practices, warning that the problems ultimately could undermine the largely independent public schools and waste taxpayer dollars.

Follow Up
An executive summary and the full report are available online at us/ig/igpubl.htm.

The report, released last month, says that many Massachusetts charter schools have taken out substantial loans to pay for facilities and that some schools have signed contracts with school management companies that are unclear or otherwise pose "unwarranted risks" to the schools and taxpayers.

"To date, charter school business operations have received little scrutiny," the report says. "Although the Massachusetts charter school law is considered a strong state-oversight model on a national level, the oversight requirements of the law have not been fully or effectively implemented."

The inspector general's report comes as state legislators are considering whether to raise the cap on the number of "commonwealth" charter schools—which operate independently of school districts—that are permitted in the state. New commonwealth school proposals have been put on hold since the cap of 37 such schools was reached early last year.

The state also has five Horace Mann charter schools, which operate within a school district and are considered less autonomous than their commonwealth counterparts. As a whole, Massachusetts' charter schools enroll close to 12,000 students, with another 8,500 on waiting lists, state officials said.

Improving Oversight

Beginning in spring 1998, the inspector general's office reviewed the financial practices of 24 commonwealth schools. Among the findings:

•The state education department generally lacks resources to sufficiently oversee charter schools' business practices.

•Many charter schools have taken out loans to help pay for facilities—unpaid debt that state taxpayers could be liable for in the event that a charter school loses its charter or otherwise shuts down.

•The state lacks a uniform financial-reporting system for charter schools, making it difficult to track the schools' fiscal management.

•Many charter schools lack written policies and procedures that ensure the schools receive the greatest value in purchasing products and services.

•Unadvertised, noncompetitive processes being used to lease some charter school facilities are vulnerable to waste and abuse.

Responding to the report, Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll said the education department had already taken steps to rectify many of the problems highlighted, such as standardizing financial-reporting requirements, clarifying guidance to schools, and beefing up start-up help to fledgling schools. But Mr. Driscoll also emphasized that his agency had "strategically chosen to invest the bulk of limited resources for charter school oversight on accountability for academic performance."

Several charter school founders in Massachusetts have opted to hire for-profit education management companies to run the schools. The report says the education department has failed to systematically or uniformly vet the contracts that school founders sign with the companies.

The agency currently is reviewing all contracts and drafting uniform standards for their approval, said Edward Kirby, the acting associate commissioner for charter schools.

Expansion Unclear

Meanwhile, a bill that would nearly double the cap on commonwealth charters, from 37 to 72, over five years is pending in the state House; the measure cleared the Senate in late October by a 21-17 vote. Legislative aides said it was unclear when the bill would be brought up in the new session that began last week.

For their part, charter school advocates say the inspector general's report might make it more difficult to expand the program. They note that the 87,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association opposes the bill to raise the cap.

"I don't think the report is a death knell at all on the bill, but there's enough hostile sentiment out there for this report to make it harder to pass the legislation," said Linda Brown, the director of the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center at the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank in Boston.

Vol. 19, Issue 17, Page 20

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