January 25, 2016; Topeka Capital-Journal (Associated Press)

As the meaning of “accountability” in charter schools continues to be a part of the national charter discourse, one Missouri school may serve as an example of accountability failure. According to the Associated Press, the state is suing a Kansas City charter school for approximately $3.7 million paid to the school based on attendance records that Missouri says were inflated and falsified.

As reported in the Kansas City Star, Hope Academy, a charter school for high school students, had been reporting attendance rates at nearly 98 percent in 2013 when the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education performed a surprise visit to the school. On the day of the visit, only about 30 percent of the 363 students reported as being enrolled at Hope were there.

An ensuing state auditor’s report concluded that the state had overpaid Hope Academy by about $4.3 million in state funds over two years based on inflated attendance records. The state withheld further payments to the school, reducing the amount that was overpaid to $3.74 million.

The recently filed lawsuit accuses Hope Academy of “failing to return state education funds, fraudulently misrepresenting attendance figures, and converting public funds.” If the state’s attorney general is successful, the $3.74 million will be returned and distributed to public schools.

Hope Academy’s issues were not solely financial. During the November 2013 visit, Missouri’s state review team discovered that some students had been given academic credit for “community service work,” such as after-school babysitting and hair braiding, which did not meet service learning requirements. The team also discovered one case of a student paying a school employee to grant the student academic credit. In 2014, Hope’s sponsor, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, closed the school, citing poor academic performance.

Because Missouri’s charter schools are funded as public schools, their funding is based on attendance and enrollment numbers—just like their traditional peers. Under rules similar to most other states’, Missouri provides public funding to charters but allows the schools to be operated by independent boards and sponsored by third parties.

The Washington State Supreme Court recently discussed charter schools and the gaps in their accountability measures, comparing those measures to the compliancy required for other public schools. However, the court did not offer suggestions for improvement. Last year, Ohio’s auditor filed a report alleging a charter’s enrollment fraud, in a situation quite similar to Hope Academy’s. The hybrid accountability structure and typical of publically funded charters—accountable in part to independent boards, state governments, and, sponsorship agencies—is intended to allow for innovation. But that should not justify, in any way, a lessened commitment to accountability.—Lauren Karch