June 16, 2015; Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch
Both the federal government and education reformers have made strategic objectives out of “school choice” and increasing the role of charter schools. But the U.S. Department of Education’s commitment to holding charter schools to the same level of oversight and accountability that traditional public schools are expected to meet is increasingly in question. School choice and charter schools have been key elements of the Department of Education’s strategy to implement the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and the DoE has pledged to provide effective oversight for their operations: “Both charter schools and other autonomous schools funded under this program must be subject to the same accountability systems as traditional public schools, as well as increased accountability for improving student academic achievement.”
A recent article by Jonas Persson in the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch spotlights how limited and ineffective Charter School accountability is: “Designed to create and expand ‘high-quality’ charter schools, the quarter-billion-dollar-a-year program has been repeatedly criticized…for suspected waste and poor financial controls.”
“With oversight outsourced to charter school authorizers, the state departments of education are reduced to conducting independent reviews of the applications, and to follow up by providing support and training to the authorizers in the hope that they will follow best practices. […] Not only did officials…ignore reviews on a whim, they also met frequently with the charter industry while arguing for even less accountability.”
Using Colorado as a model, Persson found that starting from the point where an organization applied for a charter to operate their school, effective oversight was impossible. The personnel delegated to review charter applications are “beholden to the industry they are tasked with reviewing.”
The job posting for charter reviewers makes it clear what the Education Department is primarily looking for:
- Charter school funders
- Charter school and charter management organization leaders
- Social and education entrepreneurs
- Grant makers or managers with experience in the charter sector.
While the Department of Education will consider applications from state or district education officials, reviewers must still “have a solid understanding of the charter school movement” and experience in “designing, evaluating, or implementing effective charter school models.”
The DoE’s guidance on accountability when it comes to conflicts at a state level is contradictory and sets a low standard. Federal standards guide states, too, but in reviewing Colorado’s application for ESEA Charter School funding, federal reviewers found that “the application includes a plan for implementing a turnaround model for failing charters, which seems to contradict the concept of strong system of accountability.” Federal reviewers of Colorado’s application even gave the state credit for not requiring Charters to be subject to local zoning and building regulations.
President Obama has set a high bar for our nation’s public education system: “Every child in America deserves a world-class education… We must ensure that every student graduates from high school well prepared for college and a career.” With Congress now debating ESEA’s renewal and increasing funding for charter school expansion by 48 percent, now is the time to consider whether schools with limited public accountability can ever be counted on to help our nation reach its goals.—Marty Levine