July 10, 2015; Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH)

Fueled by the inaction of his home state’s government, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced an amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act currently before the House and Senate.

According to a statement on the senator’s website, his Charter School Accountability Act proposal would “strengthen charter school accountability and transparency, prevent fraud, and increase community involvement.”

Senator Brown explained his motivations for putting this proposal forward:

“We owe it to children and taxpayers to ensure that education provided in our classrooms—whether they be in public, private, or charter schools—is effective and sound. While most educators at charter schools are working hard to meet the needs of students, the lack of oversight has allowed problems of fraud and abuse to fester at some institutions. By strengthening charter school accountability and transparency, and increasing community involvement we can prevent fraud and ensure all of Ohio’s children receive the education they deserve.”

Senator Brown’s home state of Ohio has been a focal point for the national concern about charter school performance and mismanagement. An Akron Beacon Journal review from May 30th of “4,263 audits released last year by State Auditor Dave Yost’s office indicates charter schools misspend public money nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.” Concern over the poor educational performance of Ohio charters was highlighted by a Stanford University Study released in 2014.

As the federal government’s growing role in in public education has become one of critics’ major concerns, many would prefer there not be any new federal interventions in state and local management of their schools. But despite the widespread public support for increased oversight, the Ohio legislature ended its legislative session on June 30th without passing any reform legislation.

The Plain Dealer summarized the key components of Sherrod’s proposal:

  • Mandatory annual audits, to be made available to the public.
  • States must have rules against conflicts of interest between charter school boards and those seeking contracts with the schools.
  • States would ensure each school “prioritizes education over profits.”
  • School districts and charter schools would set multi-year plans together.
  • Before any new charter school opens, a community meeting and an impact study must be completed.
  • States would create annual reports about the impact of their charter schools and perform annual evaluations of each school, including comparisons of their academic results with those of other charters in the area and to school district schools.

In urging support for the Sherrod proposal, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in a joint statement with Brown, “The Charter School Accountability Act would ensure that all schools receiving public dollars abide by common sense standards that all other taxpayer-funded schools have been rightfully held to for decades.”

However, the future of Brown’s proposal is uncertain. Differing versions of federal legislation are under consideration in the House and Senate, and increasing oversight over charter schools remains a controversial issue. Darlene Chambers, head of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, was quoted by the Plain Dealer as saying, “Enacting federal legislation to respond to already-addressed issues in Ohio misses the target of meeting the needs of the nearly 3 million students whose parents choose to send them to charter schools in the United States.”

So, should the federal government act when states can’t or won’t? Doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring its funds are spent properly? The debate over charter school oversight provides another case where we can see a larger political conflict at play.—Marty Levine