October 20, 2015; New Hampshire Public Radio

Chartering a new charter school is easier than building a system that provides effective oversight of these privately-run but publically-funded organizations. This is the lesson that should be drawn from the growing body of evidence of mismanagement and ineffectiveness from this fast-growing component of our nation’s public school system.

A recent federal review of New Hampshire’s charter school program, which received $19.6 million in state aid last year, “raised concerns about gaps in state oversight when it comes to how public money is being spent. […] The report called on the state to ‘strengthen its fiscal control and fund accounting procedures to ensure allowable uses of grant funds and the development of sound fiscal control policies.’”

According to the report, the state “doesn’t review or require source documentation from the charter schools. [The schools] stated they were never required to provide details about any purchases beyond a brief outcome statement and that the state never asked follow-up questions or requested any documentation.”

Beyond individual examples of mismanagement and questionable use of public funds, the report pointed out major weaknesses in the state’s oversight efforts to ensure effective operation and equal access to state’s charters as required by federal law: the lack of a strategic approach from the state Department of Education to monitor charter schools, no schedule or selection strategy in place for on-site monitoring to assist in submitting the required annual reports, and potential barriers to admission coming from school application procedures:

In one particularly challenging example, the monitoring team found that students with IEPs may face a lengthy application process because the charter school requires an IEP meeting with the previous school before the student can be admitted. Thus, the admission process for a student with an IEP may take several weeks, and this is contingent on how soon the charter school would be able to schedule a meeting with the sending school.

Nonprofit Quarterly previously reported on the impacts of ineffective oversight in Ohio and California. Addressing these deficiencies requires action on a state-by-state basis and is often a slow and difficult process. Ohio, which has been plagued by mismanaged charters, finally passed a new oversight law this October. But, as reported on the Plain Dealer website, Ohio Education Association President Becky Higgins pointed out that “with the enactment of stronger laws, the burden will now fall on the Ohio Department of Education to make sure sponsors and operators of charter schools fulfill their mission and provide positive educational outcomes for Ohio’s students.”

Will states devote the needed new resources to provide oversight? Will they actually hold individual charter operators accountable? Time will tell.—Martin Levine