Challenges to Charter Laws Mount
Ten years after Minnesota became the first state to authorize charter schools, serious challenges to existing charter laws are arising in a handful of states that have traditionally been friendly to the publicly financed but administratively independent schools.
State lawmakers in both Pennsylvania and Texas are debating proposals that would temporarily halt the creation of new charter schools. And the Ohio Federation of Teachers was expected this week to file a lawsuit charging that the state's charter schools violate a provision in the Ohio Constitution requiring a "thorough and efficient system of common schools," governed by local school boards.
Even Minnesota legislators are considering imposing new accountability requirements on such schools after several high-profile school closings in their charter-pioneering state.
The challenges come as charter advocates are still celebrating the hard-won passage last month of a law authorizing charter schools in Indiana, as well as President Bush's recent proposal to provide new federal money to help communities cover start-up costs for charter schools.
Jeanne Allen, the executive director of the Center for Education Reform—a Washington-based research and advocacy group that supports school choice—characterized the challenges as "troubling, but it's not unusual, and it's to be expected."
"Because charter schools are continuing to grow in number and in scope, it gives the establishment more reason to try to shape it from their own needs and wants," Ms. Allen said.
In Texas, where Mr. Bush championed charter schools while serving as governor, the House of Representatives passed a measure last month that would place a two-year moratorium on the establishment of new schools and increase the regulatory requirements for existing schools.
Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Democrat, said he decided to sponsor the measure after chairing a committee assigned to look into the progress of charter schools in the state. The committee report that came out last December painted a picture of a charter system that is plagued by lack of adequate oversight and vulnerable to financial mismanagement and abuse.
Some 210 schools have received charters from the state since the Texas legislature authorized the charter program in 1995, and a total of 18 have closed for a variety of reasons, including financial problems and poor attendance. One such school in Mr. Dunnam's home district of Waco folded two years ago "in a rather spectacular manner," the legislator said.
"Close to 200 kids had to repeat a grade, hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted, they owed everybody in town," Mr. Dunnam said.
"It's happened over and over," he maintained. "We've had some great abuses of the taxpayer dollar, and you just can't ignore it."
Still, the measure will likely face a bumpier road in the Texas Senate, where the chairman of the education committee has not yet indicated support for a charter school moratorium. Sen. Teel Bivins, a Republican, said that while he believes that there's "no question that some charters have been issued in Texas that should not have been issued," he has not decided whether a moratorium would be the best way to address the issue.
Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, is opposed to a moratorium. A Republican who served as lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Bush and stepped into the top slot after Mr. Bush's victory in the presidential election, Mr. Perry unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to Mr. Dunnam's bill that would have stripped away the moratorium and many of the new accountability provisions in the measure.
"He believes that if there are problems with charter schools, we should go in and fix them or close them down," said Gene Acuña, a spokesman for the governor. "But he doesn't believe that we should keep educational opportunities from happening for other students in the state because of the problems of a few."
Timeout in Pa.?
Pennsylvania lawmakers are also debating whether to put the creation of new charter schools on hold, in addition to considering legislation that would change the way such schools are financed.
Critics of the state's charter school program, including teachers' unions and the state school boards' association, contend that school districts have been forced to make painful budget cuts or raise local taxes to offset the cost of required payments to charter schools.
Under the 1997 law that authorized charter schools in the state, districts must pay locally based charters based on a per-pupil formula that equals approximately 80 percent of a district's per-pupil spending.
Rep. Karl W. Boyes, a Republican, has introduced a measure that would place a two-year moratorium on the creation of new charter schools while legislators reviewed the academic progress and fiscal impact of the state's 65 existing charter schools.
"His feeling is that we have some things to learn from the charter schools that are already here," said Patricia A. Hippler, a spokeswoman for Mr. Boyes. "Once the study is complete and we've learned to do it better, then we can continue with charter schools."
Gov. Tom Ridge, also a Republican, strongly opposes the proposal, which is pending before the House education committee. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Boyes' measure will garner further support in the legislature.
William L. Boyd, the director of the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Education Policy Center at Pennsylvania State University, said it might be hard to justify a moratorium.
"Generally speaking, the charter schools have run very well," Mr. Boyd said. "I don't think things have gotten acute enough to justify having a moratorium."
Ohio Law Targeted
In Ohio, meanwhile, charter school opponents have shifted their fight from the Statehouse to the courthouse. The Ohio Federation of Teachers last month announced plans to file a lawsuit charging that the schools violate state law.
Tom Mooney, the president of the union, said the suit would center in part around schools managed by for-profit firms such as White Hat Management, an Akron-based education management company that runs 12 of the state's 68 charter schools.
Under the 1997 law authorizing charter schools in Ohio, such schools must be non-profit entities governed by either a traditional school board or a charter school board. The law states that boards are free to contract for any services necessary for the operation of the school—a provision that has enabled some schools to enter into contracts with for-profit management companies.
"They want us to believe that a couple of dozen non- profit community groups just happened to decide to enter into the exact same contract for the same price for the same services with a for-profit management company," Mr. Mooney said.
"These are just a chain of company-run stores," he asserted.
In addition, Mr. Mooney said, the suit—expected to be filed this week—would likely argue that charter schools violate a state constitutional requirement calling for a system of common schools run by local school boards.
"These things are under their own self-appointed boards and aren't subjected to any accountability to the public or the tax dollars that are funding them," he said.
Officials of the Ohio education department said they would refrain from commenting on the suit until it was filed and they had had a chance to review it. But Sen. Lynn Roger Wachtmann, a supporter of charter schools, said that the teachers' union was "dead wrong" in its contentions.
"They're choosing to be afraid of opportunities for students to learn in settings other than those that they control," said Mr. Wachtmann, a Republican. "The idea of these being unconstitutional has never even been a part of the discussion."
Mr. Wachtmann is a co-sponsor of a measure that would form a new board specifically empowered to sponsor and monitor charter schools, removing that power from the state education department. The lawmaker argues that an independent charter board would be able to focus more clearly on the mission of charter schools.
In addition, the measure would aim to reimburse charter schools for transportation costs and provide a new pool of money to help them acquire school buildings. The bills are set to be officially introduced this week.
Minnesota Mulls Changes
Various provisions that would impose more rigid financial restrictions on Minnesota charter schools and create a new board to oversee them were approved last week by the House's K-12 education finance committee. The measures come in the wake of recent revelations of alleged financial mismanagement in several charter schools.
The committee on April 25 agreed to accept changes to the charter program as a part of a larger education finance bill. In addition to setting up a new State Board of Charter Schools to provide advice and oversight for the state's 63 charter schools, the provisions would prohibit employees of a charter school's management firm from serving on the school's board of directors and require charter school boards to make their meeting minutes available to the public.
Another measure would create a lien system through which the state could recover money from a school if it were to close with outstanding bills.
Some of the accountability measures were included in legislation introduced by Rep. Matt Entenza and voted down by the House Education Policy Committee in March. The measure was partially revived after the St. Paul school district announced that it would not renew the board's sponsorship of the Strategies for Success Charter School, after an audit revealed that school officials used public money to lease cars for themselves and to buy a condominium for one board member who also serves as a co-director of the school.
Two other charter schools in the 44,000-student district were closed last year because of alleged financial mismanagement. ("Charter Closings Come Under Scrutiny," Feb. 28, 2001.)
"We were very concerned that bad apples continue to operate in the charter school system," said Stephen Dess, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. "We prefer preventative steps, but there were a few clean up things that had to be done here."
Vol. 20, Issue 33, Pages 1,24-25