It is hard to say what our local charter’s parents have learned from the upheaval at the school. It reminds me of stories about running any small business. So, I looked up some. I found a classic. Top Ten Reasons Small Businesses Fail was published in the New York Times a few years ago. It may have been written by a former charter school owner: money woes, poor management skills, personality driven operations that can lead to big problems. The author states: Rarely does the owner’s finger point to the owner.
Charters are supposed to have governing boards that supply expertise and perspective on operations. Too often, they do not. Instead boards are often cronies; friends of the owner. They preside instead of work at the task of evaluating operations. They rubber stamp. They may mean well, but they do not know what they do not know. What should they know? What should our legislators do? We have collected a list. It is time for the League to go to work.
Charter board training should require that members recite the Top Ten Mistakes of Charter School Boards. They include a familiar list: lack of financial background, include friends of the charter operator, and a lack of understanding of charter contract and board responsibility. If boards ignore inappropriate salaries, donations that are really fees, and admissions that are not lotteries, can districts intervene? The reality is that districts can consult with charter boards, but they cannot force change until the problems are so serious that charters can be closed.
The problems are noted in the Summary of the Auditor General Significant Findings and Trends 2013-14. There are 125 schools with audit findings with weaknesses in internal control, instances on non compliance with applicable laws or rules, or additional matters that should be addressed by management, including 31 instances of material weaknesses in internal control.
What is the district responsibility for charter oversight? Not much! They make certain that the fire code is met, annual audit is conducted, and monthly summary financial statements are received. They can close charters if students fail to meet performance outcomes i.e. earn a failing school two years in a row, do not follow generally accepted fiscal practices i.e. cannot pay their bills, violate the law i.e. put students in harms way, or show other good cause. Too many charters are good at bending laws, and districts tend not to sue if they do not think they can win. The result is that problems cumulate because no one is watching the store.
This ambiguity in oversight is a systemic problem in charters. For many, it is ideological in that they feel that rules and regulations inherently stifle creativity. Truth be told, the lack of them does not foster creativity. It is more likely to result in irresponsibility. Many of the charter closures are run by independent operators. For-profit management companies have better survival rates because they have professional managers. Some of their problems are different. We will cover them in another post.
Districts and the Department of Education have made some positive steps to improve charter authorization and oversight. The Florida Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing makes recommendations to improve practices. They are not in law but include maintaining: high standards, school autonomy (focus on measurable outcomes rather than processes) , student and public interest (non selective, non discriminatory access to all eligible students, fair treatment in admissions and discipline, appropriate services for students with disabilities and ELS. These apply to both independently run and corporately run charters. Both require district oversight.
Districts are Claiming More Responsibility for Charter Oversight.
There are indications that at least some districts are challenging the Florida DOE by becoming proactive on the need for better charter oversight. Lists of proposed changes in legislation have emerged. Some of these proposals made it into bills in the 2015 legislative session, but they disappeared when the session ended prematurely. Watch for and encourage the reemergence of proposals for:
- background checks of operators
- denial of charters due to lack of innovation
- approval of charter location
- independent boards
- district review of board members
- student testing monitors
- oversight of procedures for admission/dismissal of students
- financial disclosure of board members and administrators
- district approval of board members: Michigan, New York and Massachusetts require authorizer approval
- competitive bidding rules
- charter boards that are independent from management companies is a recommendation from the Model Law for National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
- salary caps are proposed in several states e.g. New Jersey, New Mexico. States with conversion charters often use district salary schedules.
- facility lease rate approval: Minnesota.
Some public interest organizations call for specific fraud detection protocols including illegal use of funds for: personal gain, supporting other businesses, inflating enrollment, endangering children, not providing services, and other mismanagement.