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Accountability Looms Large as Charter Proponents Mull Future

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 14, 2009 6 min read
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Even as he and President Barack Obama are pressing states to remove barriers that advocates say have stymied the growth of charter schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling on charter leaders to police themselves and root out poor performers.

“The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate schools to exist,” Mr. Duncan said last month in Washington at the annual conference of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. “Your goal should be quality, not quantity.”

The issue of charter quality was front and center at the conference, where the alliance unveiled a model state law that it said could be used to overhaul the wide range of laws that govern the publicly funded but largely independent schools, as well as establish charter laws in the 10 states that don’t allow such schools to operate.

The model law calls for better access to facilities and other capital resources, stricter accountability for the local school boards and other entities that authorize charters, and performance contracts.

And the influential California Charter Schools Association last month announced a new accountability plan to help the local school boards that authorize charters make decisions about whether or not to renew them.

Secretary Duncan’s June 22 address to more than 3,300 charter school leaders and advocates came after a study released by Stanford University researchers concluded that students in most of the nation’s charter schools are performing worse than or about the same as their peers in regular public schools.

Mr. Duncan called the findings “a wake-up call,” but he and President Obama have mostly championed charters. The secretary has pledged that states with charter-friendly laws and policies will get first crack at awards from his $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund, part of the aid slated for education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (“Obama Team’s Advocacy Boosts Charter Momentum,” June 17, 2009, and “Racing for an Early Edge,” this issue.)

In addition, Mr. Duncan made a strong pitch in his speech for charter leaders to get involved in his push to “turn around” 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools. He pledged that federal dollars would follow to support them.

‘Red Flag’

The study of charter schools by researchers at Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes looked at mathematics scores at 2,403 charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It concluded that 37 percent of the schools posted gains that were “significantly below” what their students would have realized if they had enrolled in their local regular public schools instead.

An additional 46 percent of charters produced learning gains that were indistinguishable from those of the local public schools, it concluded, while 17 percent of charters posted growth that exceeded that of their regular public school equivalents by a “significant amount.”

“If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters,” said Margaret E. Raymond, the director of the center and the study’s lead author. “That’s a red flag.”

Ms. Raymond’s team used student-level longitudinal data from each of the participating states and the District of Columbia. The researchers created a “virtual twin” from local public schools that matched each charter school student’s profile by race and ethnicity, eligibility for federally subsidized school meals, participation in special education programs, English-language proficiency, and starting test scores.

The authors also did a state-by-state analysis of charter school results and a nationwide analysis of the impact of such schools on students in various subgroups. The national analysis showed that, in general, charter schools have different effects on students based on their family backgrounds. African-American and Hispanic students were found to do worse in charter schools, while students from low-income families and English-language learners performed better.

Ms. Raymond said the student population of charters, while often

assumed to be predominately African-American and Hispanic, is “quite heterogeneous,” with large numbers of poor children from all ethnic and racial backgrounds and English-language learners whose first language is something other than Spanish.

The study also found that, on average, students in their first year at a charter tend to see a decline in achievement (a result that the researchers said could be explained by complications from mobility and a charter school that has just opened), but that trend is reversed for children in the second and third years at a charter.

In California, meanwhile, the state’s leading charter school organization has launched an effort to give local school boards—which authorize and oversee most of the 750 charters in the state—clear academic standards for evaluating the schools at the time of their five-year renewals.

Some charter leaders in California have said that state law now allows for too many exceptions under which charters can remain open even when their academic performance is weak.

“We should watch this closely and see if it can become a model for other states,” Secretary Duncan said of the new accountability plan designed by the California Charter Schools Association.

The plan, shaped by the 18 charter school leaders who sit on the association’s member council, would assign a “predicted” performance score on state tests to each charter school, said Jed Wallace, the president and chief executive officer of the association.

That number would be based on student demographics such as race and ethnicity, the number of English-language learners, and the population of children who are eligible for the federal free and reduced-priced meals program.

Schools that fell 10 percent or more below their predicted performance would be designated as low-performing; those that did so for the three years leading up to their renewal dates would be shut down.

Using that standard would lead to the closure of roughly a dozen charter schools each year, Mr. Wallace said.

Model State Law

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools spent 18 months crafting its model state charter school law and intends to lobby state legislatures and work with the U.S. Department of Education to push states to adopt the model, said Nelson Smith, the president and CEO of the alliance.

Central to that effort, he said, is accountability for authorizers—the school boards and other entities, such as universities and nonprofit groups, that review charter school proposals and oversee the schools once they are approved to open. State laws so far have given authorizers only “cursory attention,” Mr. Smith said.

The alliance’s model law calls for requiring authorizers to explicitly state their interest in being responsible for charter school oversight and for state governments to give them the resources to do the job.

To that end, the model law would set up charter school data-collection systems so that authorizers could use that information both to monitor compliance and to make decisions about renewal and revocation of charters. Authorizers would have to submit annual reports on the performance of the schools they oversee to either the state legislature or another statewide governing body.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Accountability Looms Large as Charter Proponents Mull Future

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