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Published in Print: November 20, 2002, as New Scrutiny for Sponsors of Charters

New Scrutiny for Sponsors of Charters

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In theory, the organizers of charter schools strike a simple deal with the people who grant them their charters: Cut us loose from red tape and see if we cut the mustard. If not, go ahead and shut us down.

But what happens when nobody holds those schools accountable?

That question—how to make sure that charter school authorizers hold up their end of the accountability bargain—is arising a lot lately as examples of failed charter schools proliferate.

Several recent developments underscore the difficulty of making good on the trade-off at the heart of the decade-old charter school experiment: A scathing state audit in California. Texas' move to shutter five low-performing schools. A debate in Ohio over proposed changes to the state charter law.

"It hasn't been recognized by legislatures that authorizers are really a critical part of the infrastructure of charter schools, and in many states they've been just an afterthought," said Margaret Y. Lin, the executive director of the 2-year-old National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in Alexandria, Va. "But if accountability is to be taken seriously, then authorizers have to be considered quite central to that."

The role of charter school sponsors was front and center in Ohio last week, as lawmakers resumed debate over a far-reaching package of proposed changes to the state's 5-year-old charter school law. Among other revisions, the legislation would strip the state board of education of its role in granting charters to schools.

Instead, the board, which has sponsored 101 of the 127 Ohio charter schools now in operation, would be put in charge of licensing other sponsors—becoming in effect the authorizer of authorizers.

Meanwhile, in California, the state auditor threw fuel on an already heated accountability debate there by releasing a report that sharply criticized charter school oversight in the nation's largest state. The Nov. 7 report echoed concerns long voiced by opponents and supporters of California's 436 charter schools.

Nonetheless, it was denounced as unfair and misguided by the state department of education, some charter school advocates, and the four large districts that were targeted by the auditors.

And in Texas, the state commissioner of education announced Nov. 6 that he was revoking the charters of five schools with chronically poor showings on state tests and other academic indicators. Texas has closed five charter schools in the past due to fiscal mismanagement, but has never done so on academic grounds.

The move was applauded both by leaders of the Texas charter school sector and its leading detractors, who complain that the state has been too slow to intervene in troubled charters.

The developments in California, Ohio, and Texas are part of a broader shift occurring in the role of charter school sponsors, says Dean Kern, the director of the public charter school program in the U.S. Department of Education.

That trend, which is affecting how closely authorizers scrutinize proposed charter schools and how closely they track the schools' performance after they open, stems in part from the new academic standards, testing, and accountability requirements imposed on the states by the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, he said.

"We're looking at authorizers and saying to them, 'What is your role in this era of accountability?' " Mr. Kern said.

Lack of Capacity

Who is feeling the heat from the changing demands on charter authorizers varies among states.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have laws allowing the publicly financed but largely independent schools. Those laws vary greatly in whom they empower to enter into the contracts known as charters, and who is expected to ensure that those contracts are followed.

In some states, including California and Colorado, local school districts have been the primary granters of charters and have borne the main responsibility for overseeing the schools that get them. In others, such as Texas and Ohio, the state boards of education have assumed both those roles for the overwhelming majority of charter schools.

Special charter boards, universities, state education commissioners, regional school boards, and even municipal officials are among those authorized to grant charters in various states.

Those institutions and individuals often have something in common, many observers say: They lack the capacity to meet the expectations for quality control increasingly being placed on them.

Concerns about oversight have come from some state-level charter school associations, as well as from policymakers who are friendly to charter schools and those who are hostile to them.

In particular, committed charter critics, including some teachers' unions, have found ammunition in what they view as predictable abuses committed by charter schools right under their authorizers' noses.

Those critics include a coalition of groups headed by the Ohio Federation of Teachers, which launched a blitz of radio advertisements last week aimed at derailing state legislation that the union believes would have the effect of expanding the number of charter schools in the state. ("Ohio Charters Targeted in Election Politics," Sept. 18, 2002.)

"One certainly gets the impression that any P.T. Barnum that can fill out a form gets a charter," Tom Mooney, the OFT president, said last week. "We don't find out about their inability to even administer a school until it closes. It's just been pitiful the nonsense that has gone on in some of these schools, due to nobody paying attention to what's going on."

Yet some officials charged with paying attention to such matters fear that policymakers run the risk of stifling the innovations they hoped to foster by insisting on too much of the wrong kind of accountability for charter schools.

"I'm not saying that we should just let schools do any old thing and jeopardize the students, but we do want to give the schools enough space to do interesting things," said Grace Arnold, the director of the charter school office of the 737,000-student Los Angeles school district. "We should not revert back to a checklist system of keeping people accountable."

Ms. Arnold was one of the local officials stung by the new report on charter school oversight by the office of California State Auditor Elaine M. Howle.

Most of California's charter schools have been authorized by local districts, so the auditors opted to focus on four urban districts with relatively large numbers of charter schools: Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego.

Defining Roles

The auditors found that those districts were inadequately monitoring both the academic and fiscal operations of their charter schools. They also chided the state education department for failing to step in when necessary to demand answers from schools in trouble.

"Without academic or fiscal oversight by the chartering entities, charter schools are not held accountable for improving student learning, meeting their agreed-upon academic goals, or the taxpayer funds that support their operation," Ms. Howle wrote in a letter to California lawmakers that accompanied the report.

The audit contended that the districts fail to ensure that charter schools are abiding by state rules requiring them to employ certified teachers, offer enough "instructional minutes," and administer state tests. It also accused the districts of failing to show how their actual costs for overseeing charter schools lined up with the oversight fees they charge the schools.

Among other recommendations, the auditors proposed changing state law to "make chartering entities' oversight role and responsibilities explicit."

In letters appended to the report, the four districts and the department vigorously objected to the criticisms. They said it was unfair for the auditors to read various duties into the law that aren't there, and then fault them for not fulfilling those expectations.

The audit comes at a time when California's charter community is gearing up for changes wrought by a state law enacted in late September in response to perceived lapses in charter school oversight. That legislation, which takes effect in January, largely limits charter schools to operating in the districts that grant them charters—a move prompted in part by alleged abuses at charter campuses that are located far from the districts that sponsored them.

Under the law, county education boards and the state board of education will have more authority to grant charters. The legislation also lets state and county boards contract with third parties to oversee schools they have chartered.

The Ax Falls

In Texas, Commissioner of Education Felipe Alanis has ordered two charter schools in Houston and one each in Brownsville, Dallas, and Harlingen to pack it in at the end of this school year. The schools, which together serve about 2,000 students, had languished at the bottom of the state's accountability rankings for three years running.

"Many of our charter schools are providing a sound education to children, but these five schools have a long record of poor performance," the commissioner said in announcing the revocations. In taking that step, Mr. Alanis used new enforcement authority granted by a 2001 state law that was enacted in the wake of much-publicized charter school failures.

The Texas Education Agency also is pursuing actions against other schools, including a revocation proceeding against a Houston charter school that lawyers accused of nepotism and financial mismanagement in an administrative-law hearing this month.

"What we're seeing now is a series of actions by the TEA to weed out charters that, in some cases, shouldn't have been granted in the first place— or that suffered earlier from lax oversight," said Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network, based in St. Paul, Minn.

John Torres, the principal of Sentry Technology Prep School in Brownsville, one of the five schools losing its charter, last week called the revocation "extremely unfair." The school serves many teenage mothers and others who had dropped out of other schools, he said, yet has graduated 332 students over the past three years.

"We're serving students that went unserved or underserved in traditional high schools," he added.

But Patsy O'Neill, the executive director of the Charter School Resource Center of Texas, a nonprofit organization based in San Antonio, said the records of Sentry and the other four schools being closed contrast sharply with those of other Texas charters that are having great success with former dropouts.

Ms. O'Neill noted that four of the five closing schools were approved during a period four years ago when the state school board was flooded with charter applications and approved them all, without so much as an interview.

"In hindsight, they know they made a mistake," she said of the board members. But matters have changed, she added: While the board handed out 109 charters in 1998-99, it gave the nod to just two of 44 applicants this year.

Texas currently has 185 state-approved charter schools, with another 32 operating under "district charters" that grant them less autonomy from their local school systems than those with state charters enjoy.

Ms. O'Neill applauds the state board for making the charter-approval process more stringent and the Texas Education Agency for increasing its oversight efforts.

But she said the legislature needs to give the education agency more resources to do the job right. "They have a very high-quality staff," she said, "but they are understaffed."

Vol. 22, Issue 12, Pages 1,18

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