Charters May Need More Oversight, Report Suggests

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Now that charter schools have become a reality in several states, policymakers need to figure out just how much freedom is too much, researchers at the Hudson Institute suggest.

A report released this month offers preliminary findings from the think tank's "Charter Schools in Action" project, part of Hudson's Educational Excellence Network. The 13-page report is based on interviews with parents, charter school supporters and opponents, policymakers, and others, as well as site visits to 12 charter schools in five states.

The authors plan to have two more-formal reports released by summer 1997. Those will cover a total of 35 schools in seven states.

More than 200 charter schools are up and running nationwide. Such schools, designed by a variety of individuals and groups, operate largely outside the normal state or school district controls while receiving public funding. But the hands-off approach to the schools some states have adopted may be in the wrong areas, Chester E. Finn Jr., one of the report's authors, said last week.

"We're suggesting states need to strike a delicate balance" between regulation, intervention, and freedom, said Mr. Finn, a charter school advocate and a fellow at the Indianapolis-based institute.

"Some of the hoops the schools are jumping through now aren't the right hoops," he said. "And sometimes states are inattentive and all but oblivious" to the problems charter schools are facing.

Some of the most common problems facing the schools are a lack of funding; facility, credit, and cash-flow woes; requirements to meet unanticipated laws and regulations (such those governing school accounting systems); and political battles with local school boards. "Without doubt, the absence of capital funding, access to conventional school facilities, and start-up money is the heaviest cross charter schools bear today," the report says.

Arizona's largest charter school, for example, almost had to close this month because of shaky finances. (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1996.)

And while policymakers should be prepared for some charter schools to fail, the Hudson report says, no state has a comprehensive plan to help stave off such failures or to deal with the fallout when a school must close--such as having children stranded midyear without a school. Policymakers also have yet to set out the criteria by which charter schools ultimately will be judged a success or failure, the report says.

High Minority Enrollments

Charter school founders have had problems managing finances and staff and finding sufficient planning time before they open their doors, the researchers found. But the schools garner high levels of parent involvement.

And though some critics have predicted that charter schools will draw students mainly from homogeneous and advantaged backgrounds, the report's authors say they were surprised by the number of minority and special-needs children enrolled in the schools.

In the six states with the most charter schools, preliminary numbers suggest that minority students make up 40 percent of the charter school enrollment but only 31 percent of the regular public school population, the report says. Many charter schools specifically target at-risk populations.

The authors recommend that policymakers:

  • Grant charter schools full control over personnel selection;
  • Allow charter schools to bypass local school boards and get approval directly from the state or other entities;
  • Set up a low-interest or no-interest state-financed loan fund for charter schools;
  • Create new sources for funding charter schools' capital needs;
  • Beef up state evaluation and monitoring of charter schools;and
  • Streamline state-level reporting requirements and regulations.

For More Information:

Single copies of "Charter Schools in Action: A First Look" are available free. Send written requests to the Hudson Institute, 1015 18th St. N.W., Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20036, or fax requests to the institute at (202) 223-9226.

Vol. 15, Issue 19

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