In a new brief, William Mathis, head of the National Education Policy Center, argues that market based accountability for charter schools just does not work. At first glance, Florida’s policies are better than in some states. There are, however, some fatal flaws.
He makes the case for better oversight and regulation. His recommendations take a national perspective and include these general process requirements:
authorizers, those who approve charter contracts, control the criteria for granting charters and the length of time charters are in effect. Authorizers (in Florida, are the local school boards) must also specify the accountability mechanism for charters, and the state should fund oversight.
The basic difference between Florida’s policy and this recommendation is that in Florida, districts are the authorizer of charters, but they have little control over the criteria charters must meet and little access to information about charter fiscal policies and practices. The State legislature defines criteria for granting charters which are so broad that districts are not able to designate which charters are needed and actually are innovative.
The Florida Department of Education and the State Board of Education hold the reins of power. Thus, oversight is by design, minimal. No one ‘close to the store’ is watching what is going on behind the scenes. Even many charter school oversight boards have little knowledge of school practices. The press and whistleblowers ferret out problems that fester.
The brief also addresses operational policies i.e.:
Governance including budget, admissions procedures, discipline practices, and civil rights protection should be transparent. Annual reports and audits must be publically available and facilities must meet building codes and inspections. Staff background checks should be required.
Again, these recommendations, on the surface, are mostly met in Florida’s charter school policies. Annual audits are required. Admission lotteries for vacant seats are mandated. Monthly budget reports are available. What is missing? Basically two loopholes, aa mile wide, exist. The first problem is that there is no corrective action for fiscal mismanagement that does not reach a crisis level or for lapses in operations that impact which students enroll, retention of teachers, or suspension or dismissal of students.
The second problem is the lack of transparency that for-profit charter management firms enjoy. Budgets of their charter schools lack the detail of where and how money is spent. These companies control the entire budget, but financial records of for-profit privately run companies are shielded from public view. Thus, the public has access to charter school facility costs, for example, but no access to how these costs are generated. In some cases, it is like giving a blank check that may be nearly half of the budget without explanation of where the money ended up.
The one consolation in all of the exposure of charter mismanagement is that it is now becoming part of the public discussion about school choice. Privitizing schools may give the appearance of facilitating innovation, but the reality is too often that it results in the loss of public trust.