Education Up Front

November 6, 2002

November 20, 2002

December 4, 2002


Better oversight of charter schools a must

A report earlier this month by the state auditor suggests that some charter schools in San Diego City Schools and three other large urban districts throughout the state are not achieving the level of educational excellence they were created to bring about in public education.

In fact, quite the opposite is true, according to the Bureau of State

Audits' report dated Nov. 7, entitled: "California's Charter Schools" and subtitled: "Oversight at All Levels Could be Stronger to Ensure Charter Schools' Accountability."

The 224-page report cites instances in which the San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Fresno school districts failed to ensure that charter schools in their respective jurisdictions met academic goals and followed financial rules. The report also criticized the state Department of Education for not being aggressive enough in pushing school districts to check on their charters.

These findings go to the very heart of the structure of educational reform in California. Since their legislative creation in 1994, charter schools have been lifted up by various parties interested in educational reform chief among them, the Business Roundtable for Education -- as the means to find ways to improve teaching and learning in our public schools. Today, there are more than 60 charter schools in the San Diego area, most of which are in San Diego Unified. San Diego County has one of the largest concentrations of charter schools of anywhere in the nation.

Typically, a group of parents, teachers, and/or community members develops a petition to open and operate a school that has specific goals and attributes included in its charter, including proposed budgets, financial projections and a reasonably comprehensive description of several elements, such as the method of measuring student academic performance. The charter is then reviewed and then granted for a five-year period by the chartering or granting entity, usually a school district, which is to maintain reasonable

oversight during the ensuing period of the charter.

The granting entity has the authority to revoke a charter it has granted if the school materially violates its charter, fails to achieve or pursue any of its student objectives and outcomes, engages in fiscal mismanagement or violates any provision of law. The entity also has authority to make reasonable inquiries and to inspect any part of the charter school at any time.

As publicly funded schools, charter schools are supposed to provide parents, teachers, and administrators the freedom and incentives to model excellence in teaching and learning that can be replicated in our traditional public schools. That excellence, by a reasonable extension of logic, should include competence in operating the schools and accounting for the funds that they use.

Sad to say, the state auditor finds some charter schools in the state of California to be otherwise and even if only half the findings are true, there is ample reason to be troubled.

The auditor's cover letter said the report concludes that oversight at all levels could be stronger to ensure charter schools' accountability.

"The chartering entities' fiscal monitoring of their schools is also weak," the audit said, referring to the school districts. "Without academic or fiscal oversight by the chartering entities, charter

schools are not held accountable for improving student learning, meeting their agreed-upon academic goals, or the taxpayer funds that support their operations."

According to the state auditor's report, San Diego Unified and the three other districts evaluated could not document whether children in their charter schools were achieving what they were supposed to; nor could they say the charter schools were complying with basic laws covering all public schools, such as hiring qualified teachers, teaching a certain number of minutes per day or participating in California's standardized testing program.

State Auditor Elaine M. Howle also charged that the chartering entities, again referring primarily to school districts, could not justify the oversight fees they charge their charter schools because they do not track their actual oversight costs and therefore risk double-charging these costs through mandated cost reimbursement claims.

San Diego Unified and the other districts have vigorously contested the auditor's findings, indicating, among other things, that the state Education Code is vague when it comes to a district's responsibilities. No doubt there is great merit in their complaints. And to keep things in perspective, many, if not most, conflicts between charters and their districts have arisen over complaints on the part of charters that their districts are meddling in their affairs.

Clearly, what needs to happen is the establishment of more standardized expectations of what both districts and charters can expect in terms of academic, operational, and financial oversight and the district giving correct fiscal and academic information to the charters on a monthly basis so they can manage the information on an ongoing basis.

State Board of Education President Reed Hastings, a charter school advocate who sponsored a law last year to deal with fiscal mismanagement at home school charters, has said he will push for new legislation to improve academic oversight at all charters, including an academic threshold that charters should be required to meet in order to stay open. Hastings proposes using the state's Academic Performance Index that ranks all state public schools from 1 to 10 (10 being the highest) as the measure for charters as

well.

To be eligible for renewal, a charter would have to achieve a 4 ranking under the API, Hastings suggested while noting that at least 17 charters in California were recently renewed despite a bottom-of-the-barrel ranking of 1.

The California Network of Educational Charters (CANEC) agrees that school districts need more guidance on how to oversee charter schools but new laws directing oversight are not the answer. In effect, the organization has said that if problems could be legislated out of existence, the state would have a better system of public education with all the legislation enacted over the past three decades.

CANEC recently collaborated with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six major regional accreditation agencies in the country, to create a voluntary accreditation program for charter schools.

The future of educational reform in California has a lot invested in the charter school movement and rightly so. By and large, most charter schools are doing what they were chartered to do. They are providing focused educational opportunities for their students and many of the practices they have modeled are now being replicated in other public schools. In doing so, they are casting the vision for what educational excellence should look like and be. One should not "throw out the baby with the bathwater" when considering the findings of this report.

However, the old adage "Don't expect what you don't inspect" certainly holds true even in a segment of our public education that is committed to doing it better. We need to add the necessary introspective oversight and accountability components into charter school oversight and keep charters at the cutting edge of educational excellence.


Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at ginger.hovenic@sddt.com.


November 6, 2002

November 20, 2002

December 4, 2002