Peter C. Thorp cringes when he recalls the confusion that arose last winter when a school with a name similar to that of his own California charter school was stripped of its charter amid allegations of impropriety.
“It was a huge issue for us,” said Mr. Thorp, the principal of the Gateway High School in San Francisco—which should not be confused with Gateway Academy Charter School, a multicampus school based in Fresno, Calif., that had its charter revoked in January. “We had planes flying overhead with banners saying, ‘It ain’t us.’”
Mr. Thorp jokes about it now, but establishing his school’s bona fides is a challenge that the former Fulbright Scholar and 27- year educator takes seriously. That’s why Gateway High is among a dozen charter schools in California that are piloting a new accreditation system announced last week by the state’s charter school association and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
In developing the joint venture, the California Network of Educational Charters claims to be the first state membership organization of charter schools to forge such a partnership with one of the nation’s long-established regional accrediting agencies.
The California network is far from alone, though, in valuing the seal of approval that charter schools can gain through accreditation. With lapses in charter school oversight cropping up with growing frequency around the country, more charter leaders are turning to the old-fashioned tactic of accreditation to enhance the credibility of their newfangled public schools.
Details of those efforts differ, even on such basic points as whether they are tailored exclusively to charter schools, and whether they operate independently or under the wings of conventional accrediting associations.
In some cases, individual charter schools are simply pursuing accreditation on their own from one of the six regional agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In others, charter organizations have devised accountability programs that aren’t called accreditation, but mimic many features of the process, including extensive self-study and review by a team of outside evaluators.
Yet despite such diversity, the growing interest in accreditation seems to spring from at least one common source: a desire to give those within the charter fold a greater role in defining success and weeding out failure in their own expanding niche of the public education marketplace.
“This is all very consistent with the general importance of accountability to the charter idea,” observed Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network in St. Paul, Minn. “Charter schools have a huge stake in being proactive about this because if they’re not, they’re going to be judged by the same basis as everyone else.”
As befitting a movement that eschews uniformity, operators of individual charter schools and organizations representing them are split over whether mainstream accreditation programs are useful for charters.
“Many charter schools have told us that traditional accreditation was like putting a three-fingered glove on a five-fingered hand: They could do it, but it wasn’t very comfortable, and it wasn’t very helpful,” said William C. Rice, the director of education assessment and charter school accreditation at the Washington-based American Academy for Liberal Education.
Such sentiments were behind the decision of some charter school leaders in Arizona—which has more of the independent public schools than any other state—to create their own alternative accreditation agency, the Association of Performance-Based Accreditation, five years ago.
“Basically, they wanted to put us back in the box,” said Patricia Shaw, the past president of the Phoenix-based Arizona Charter Schools Association, referring to the regional accrediting agency that does business in Arizona. “For example, if you were a computer school, they still wanted you to have libraries. It was pretty narrow-minded.”
But other veterans on the Arizona charter scene rave about the NCA Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement, the Tempe Ariz.-based regional accrediting agency that was formerly known as the North Central Association.
Among them is Karen Butterfield, who founded the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy a few years after being named the 1993 Arizona teacher of the year for her work in the Flagstaff school district. Ms. Butterfield, who took the academy through the NCA accreditation process, now works for the National Charter Schools Institute in Mount Pleasant, Mich., and serves as the charter school representative on the NCA’s Arizona advisory committee.
“It was the most worthwhile endeavor we ever did as a young staff, because I had written the charter by myself,” Ms. Butterfield recalled. “It was Karen Butterfield’s vision, but through this it became my faculty’s.”
In California, leaders of the charter network dismiss suggestions that their new joint-accreditation process with the Alameda, Calif.-based WASC smacks of an effort to make charter schools conform to old notions of what public schools must look like.
“I don’t see it as more bureaucracy,” said Rick Piercy, the chairman of the accountability committee of the California Network of Educational Charters. “I just see it as putting down the rules of the game so that everyone plays it appropriately.”
Array of Approaches
Just as charter operators are split in their views of accreditation, they are taking varied approaches as they seek to adapt the process to their own purposes.
For example, in contrast to the California charters, Arizona’s Association of Performance-Based Accreditation is going it alone. That statewide organization has accredited 18 of Arizona’s 473 charter schools. At the same time, 38 Arizona charters have been accredited by the NCA.
In Colorado, the charter school league has crafted an independent accountability system that its developers have avoided calling accreditation, partly because the state’s own public school accountability scheme is couched in terms of accreditation.
Under a grant from the federal Department of Education, the Colorado league is working with charter groups in Idaho, Oregon, and Minnesota to adapt its model to those states.
Florida’s charter schools organization is pushing to get its member schools accredited through the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, using the same standards that the regional agency applies to other “‘special purpose” public schools. Eighteen of the state’s charter schools are already accredited by the SACS, and the consortium’s president is part of a team of educators that is reviewing the SACS standards with an eye to refining how they fit with charter schools.
In the District of Columbia, the 1995 federal law that authorized charter schools in the nation’s capital required that the schools eventually become accredited. It set no deadline for doing so, however. So while some schools have received or are working toward accreditation through the Philadelphia-based Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges, many others have not begun the process.
Meanwhile, a sizable slice of the nation’s 2,700 charter schools are seeking recognition from one of the six regional agencies. And a small but growing number of charter schools are seeking accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education, which launched a charter-specific accreditation program last year.
Consistent with its focus on colleges that offer strong programs in the liberal arts and sciences, the academy does not accredit regular public or private elementary or secondary schools. The academy decided to make an exception for charter schools, Mr. Rice said.
“We felt our accreditation would be a mark of excellence, a merit badge for the best charter schools,” he explained. So far the roster of AALE-accredited schools includes only the Princeton Charter School in Princeton, N.J., but a handful of other schools are poised to be added to the list.
“We hope to accredit the top 10 to 25 percent of charter schools nationwide, the academically most ambitious,” Mr. Rice said.
Accountability at Issue
Many charter leaders are quick to say that accreditation is no substitute for effective oversight from a charter school’s sponsor. The problem, many say, is that such oversight is uneven in many states, meaning that good performance goes unrewarded and failure goes unchecked.
That concern has been acute in California, where several highly publicized charter school failures have tarnished the reputation of the state’s charter sector and prompted legislators to react with new regulations. The California Network of Educational Charters hopes its new accreditation program will serve as a tool to help charter sponsors—which in California are mostly local school districts—do a better job of holding such schools accountable. In that way, network leaders aim to blunt the impetus for further legislative restrictions on charter schools.
Among the signature features of the California program is that participating schools will need to have their accreditation renewed annually, instead of at intervals of three to six years, as is the case with other schools accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The process will also place greater emphasis on issues of fiscal solvency and governance than is done during the accreditation of most regular public schools.
A dozen schools are piloting the program, and the charter network hopes to enroll as many as 100 more next spring. The network, which has offices in San Carlos and Sacramento, represents about 70 percent of California’s 436 charter schools, which together enroll 166,000 students.
By 2004, the organization plans to make accreditation a condition of membership. At that point, said Mr. Piercy, “if a school does blow up, and they’re not a part of this accreditation process, it insulates the good schools from getting covered with the mud from the bad ones.”
Jim Griffin, the executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said a concern that school oversight was ineffective helped drive the development of the Denver-based league’s accountability system.
“These efforts come about in the absence of quality control,” he said. Concerns about uneven oversight often extend to state education departments, a problem complicated by test- heavy accountability systems at state and federal levels, he added.
“There’s a tendency to say that if they’re doing well on the state testing system, that’s all we need to know about these schools,” Mr. Griffin said. “But it’s entirely possible for a charter school to be doing wonderfully well academically, but to have one foot in the grave operationally and managerially.”