States Move to Address Lack of Charter Oversight, Accountability

By Kevin Hart

Charter schools are marketed to the public under a very simple premise – if they don’t perform, they can be closed. But the reality has been very different, and some states are now looking for ways to hold taxpayer-funded charter schools more accountable for how they perform and how they recruit students.

The number of charter schools is increasing in many states, spurred by federal initiatives like Race to the Top and new laws and regulations at the state level. But some critics, including many charter school advocates, say that states must do a better job of enacting, overseeing and enforcing quality and operational standards.

Research shows that performance problems at charter schools are widespread. A 2010 nationwide study by Stanford University found that students in only 17 percent of charter schools were outperforming demographically similar student populations at nearby, traditional neighborhood public schools. In 37 percent of cases, students at the traditional public schools performed at higher levels, and the remainder of the cases showed no statistically significant difference. 

But as a recent article by The Record (NJ) notes, closing charter schools – even schools where the academic performance has been persistently subpar – is a thorny and heavily politicized task. When New Jersey has closed or failed to renew a charter school, it’s usually been for financial reasons and not for performance.

Even charter school supporters say they are concerned that a lack of oversight and uneven quality are damaging the charter school movement.

“When the charter school movement started … any charter school that wanted to start, they were approved,” Wayne Brazell, superintendent of the South Carolina Public Charter School District said in a recent article in The State. He added that everybody now “realizes the mistake of not emphasizing quality” and said he expects a renewed focus on accountability in the coming years.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is trying to spur change from within the charter school movement by developing voluntary standards for authorizing charter schools. The National Charter School Resource Center and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement are developing a national database of all charter authorizers and the schools they have chartered to better understand reasons for charter school closures and renewals.

But many accountability changes are starting to emerge from statehouses around the country.

In Indiana, the state Legislature is considering a bill that would, in part, give the state’s Department of Education more tools to force changes at under-performing charter schools. Rhode Island education officials have proposed a plan to increase state oversight over charter schools and to hold them to higher standards. 

Idaho is taking a critical look at its ability to oversee the charter schools that already exist in the state. State education officials are asking for money to increase oversight, saying that current staff resources are insufficient.

New York is taking aim at how charters recruit students. This past spring, New York passed a law requiring charters to enroll a sufficient number of lower-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners. National studies have found that charter schools tend to under-enroll students with disabilities and English language learners. New York also introduced regulations designed to make charter lotteries more transparent.

Other states are looking for ways to help charters improve quality by implementing simple best practices. A Senate bill in North Carolina would require charter schools to employ teachers that are licensed in the subject areas in which they teach. South Carolina is trying to tackle quality problems at its charter schools through state Department of Education grants designed to help charters improve at some operational basics, like training teachers and developing curriculum.

The National Education Association supports charter schools that operate in a manner that is transparent and accountable to parents and taxpayers for quality and financial integrity, and do not have the effect of increasing segregation of special student populations in public schools.

Approaches to charter oversight and accountability are bound to vary from statehouse to statehouse. But policymakers in several states are being guided by a fairly simple premise – if there is to be a debate on holding public schools accountable for how they operate and how their students perform, that debate needs to include all public schools.