Federal

Ed. Dept. Clarifies Federal Law’s Effect on Charters

By Lynn Olson — April 02, 2003 4 min read
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The agencies that authorize charter schools bear primary responsibility for ensuring that such schools meet the requirements of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, according to federal guidance released last week. That chore would fall to state education departments only in cases where state law explicitly gives them the responsibility for charter school accountability, the document from the federal Department of Education says.

“The Impact of the New Title I Requirements on Charter Schools,” is available from the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. (Requires Microsoft Word).

The guidance largely reiterates earlier regulations. But by collecting various elements of federal charter rules, it provides educators one-stop shopping on the subject.

Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network, based in St. Paul, Minn., said the guidance provides “little new to either rejoice or complain about.” He remains concerned that the accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act and the law’s focus on subject-matter competency for teachers could threaten change and innovation in charter schools with nontraditional teaching methods and curricula.

Laws governing the approximately 2,700 charter schools nationwide vary widely by state, posing a particular challenge when it comes to the federal legislation, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In general, the publicly financed but largely independent schools are accountable to the public body that oversees them or granted them their charters. Depending on the state, the charter-granting agencies may include state boards of education, district school boards, independent agencies specifically created to grant charters, and other public agencies, such as universities or municipal governments.

While charter schools usually must administer the same state tests as other public schools, charter school authorizers typically have latitude on accountability policies. To further complicate matters, while some charters are considered “schools” for accountability purposes, others are considered districts.

The new guidance advises states to address charter schools specifically in their accountability plans, with input from those running and authorizing such schools.

Mark Cannon, the executive director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, based in Alexandria, Va., said the guidance “is especially helpful in affirming the central role of the charter authorizer” in ensuring compliance.

The guidance counsels states to ensure that charter authorizers have the resources to perform their oversight role under the federal law. “In too many places,” said the group’s president, Greg Richmond, “charter school authorizers are being asked to perform complex oversight without being given sufficient resources.”

Charters and Choice

The law requires charter schools, like other public schools, to meet annual performance targets known as “adequate yearly progress.” Those that fail to meet their targets and receive federal Title I money are subject to the same set of interventions and penalties as other public schools.

But the guidance issued last week specifies that while charter authorizers may incorporate the state definition of adequate progress into their contracts with charter schools, they are not required to do so.

The guidance also contains a few wrinkles when it comes to the ESEA provisions on public school choice and supplemental services. Under the law, students in schools that fail to make adequate progress for two years in a row—schools designated as needing improvement—have the option of transferring to other public schools. Schools that fail to meet their targets for a third year also must offer students a choice of tutoring from supplemental-service providers.

Districts should list charter schools among the choice options for eligible students, the guidance specifies. Charter schools also may provide supplemental services to eligible youngsters.

If a charter school is its own district under state law, but falls within the boundaries of a larger district, the guidance advises districts to work with the charter schools in their areas to allow eligible students to transfer to them.

If a charter school is identified as needing improvement, the authorizing agency must notify parents that they have the right to transfer their children to a higher-performing public school. Even if a state’s charter law does not require that transportation money be made available for charter schools, districts that grant charters must offer transportation for students in such schools if the schools are identified as needing improvement.

State laws also vary in whether they require teachers in charter schools to be licensed. The guidance clarifies that to be “highly qualified,” charter school teachers in the core academic subjects must hold four-year college degrees and have demonstrated competence in each subject they teach. But unlike other public school teachers, they do not have to be licensed or certified by a state if the state’s charter law does not require it.

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