What should our legislative priorities be?
Two years ago, the League made a statewide call for better oversight of charter schools. Major reports on charter fraud, waste and abuse made national headlines. The FBI raided charter schools across the country. Just this year, a new scandal erupted in several Florida cities. The U.S. district attorney has brought charges.
The problems extend beyond corruption and enter the realm of civil rights. The U.S. Department of Education and the President cautioned the charter movement about its tendency to increase racial and economic segregation in its schools. Charters, moreover, under represent children with disabilities. Critics claim that these enrollment policies reflect charter school management companies’ profit seeking priorities.
Lack of charter oversight is a design feature, not a bug says PR Watch. Charters were to be given free rein to ‘change the system’. Accountability was to be based on student academic achievement. The appWearance of academic achievement, however, is easy to manipulate. If charters attract strong students to begin with, their schools will be successful. Under the school grade system, good students, not good teachers, make good schools. Concerns about screening out students abound.
Charters have been operating long enough for the consequences to become apparent. Federal and state authorities have begun to officially recognize the abuse in the system and make marginal efforts to correct it.
- The Federal Office of Inspector General reported many incidences of conflicts of interest between charters and their management companies as well as problematic fiscal and management practices.
- In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to all state education leaders calling for better charter oversight to correct conflicts of interest, related party transactions, and improved transparency between charter and management company practices, stronger authorization practices to ensure operational and academic quality. States were charged with investigating civil rights violations by charter schools.
STATE OF FLORIDA ACTIONS
- During the 2016 legislative session, former Senate President Gaetz said it was ‘time to end charter school self enrichment policies’. He followed up with strong corrective measures; some passed:
- weighted additional 25% in facility capital outlay (PECO) funding for charters who enroll 75% Free and Reduced Lunch qualifiers and 25% students with disabilities
- required charter applicants to provide a financial and academic history
- required automatic closure of charters receiving two consecutive ‘F’ grades
- required that students not be dismissed for low academic achievement.
- Florida Department of Education set up a data base to track the history of charter school applicants.
UPDATED LEAGUE STUDY
- The Hillsborough County League reopened its study of for profit charter management company business models. Its interim report was the basis for an article in the Tampa Bay Times which received inquiries from ABC and CBS News interview.
- The League is reviewing charter ‘student push out incidences’ that may have civil rights implications.
SCHOOL DISTRICT ACTIONS
- Palm Beach County Schools Lawsuit against CSUSA over the right for districts to require charters fulfill an unmet need in the district.
- Escambia County Schools investigation of Newpoint Charter Schools that resulted in criminal indictments.
Florida officials have taken small steps to improve charter school laws, but the lack of oversight over how these laws are implemented remains. School districts authorize charters but have limited access to information about how they are run.
What more needs to be done to improve the system?
- create guidelines for charter school facility lease and bond costs
- improve transparency of charter management company practices to inhibit self dealing
- improve measures to guarantee independence of charter board member from charter management companies
- report charter school student dismissals and resignations and review civil rights violations
- document need for new charter schools to improve financial efficiency and innovative programs
- revise data reporting for free and reduced lunch program due to new federal guidelines that obscure the definition of economically disadvantaged students.
The next legislative session may, once again, tackle the charter school management and oversight problems. In the past, legislators have proposed everything from creating a charter school institute to be housed at Florida State University to forming charter school districts. There are sporadic efforts to improve collaboration between charters and local public schools, but they are often stymied by the inherent competition between the two systems.
WOULD A NEW STUDY OF CHARTER MANAAGEMENT HELP?
Identifying successful collaborative efforts, if any, could be instructive. A 2013 Center for Reinventing Public Schools report on a Gates Foundation initiative was not hopeful. Some argue that the Washington D.C. model is effective, but it too has had large scale scandals. The seven member D.C. Public Charter School Board is appointed by the Mayor. A 2015 Washington Post article reports on the need for more transparency in D.C. charter school management. It appears D.C. has the same mismanagement problems as those in other cities.
There is a report on different oversight models in the country. Minnesota and New York have ‘hands on’ oversight models. Others states are much more passive. The U.S. has a public school management and oversight system that has survived for about 100 years. If we need some schools to do a few different things, one would think that some incentives could be provided without using a wrecking ball to destroy one system in order to replace it with a more imperfect system over which the public has no control.