Growing Pains: Charter Schools Face Accountability Questions
Charter schools have been part of the education landscape since 1991, when Minnesota created the nation’s first law authorizing this publicly funded, independently run school model. Back then, charters were positioned as a companion to traditional public schools that allowed teachers and students the freedom to work together in smaller, more experimental settings. Twenty-five years later, over 2 million students are enrolled in charter schools, which are legal in 43 states as well as the District of Columbia.
In April 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics published a report showing that enrollment in charter schools has significantly increased since 2003. Between 2003 and 2013, “the percentage of public school students who attended charter schools increased from 1.6 to 5.1 percent.” As charter schools continue to proliferate, however, some states—including Massachusetts—have become embroiled in contentious public debate over whether to allow charters to continue to expand. At the center of the debate are questions of accountability, transparency, and oversight.
In education, the concept of accountability usually applies to how well schools are doing at their central mission: educating students and preparing them for a productive future. In pursuit of this goal, traditional, district-run public schools often have to answer to elected officials—through school boards, for example—while charter schools typically do not (although they do have to abide by accountability standards in many states). That is because in most states, charters can set up their own governing boards without publicly held elections.
This has led some critics to suggest that charter schools operate with less transparency and oversight than traditional public schools, while still receiving public funds. In some states, charter schools—which must be nonprofits—are run by private groups called “education management organizations.” In a 2015 Washington Post piece, education writer Valerie Strauss explored this in more detail, finding that as recently as 2012, “42 percent of the nation’s public charter school students were enrolled in privately operated charter schools.”
According to Strauss’s findings, a major concern is that in some less-regulated instances, privately managed schools do not have a good track record when it comes to clearly and readily showing the public how their schools are run and how they are spending taxpayer money. This became apparent in California in 2015 when a report on charter school fraud that was spearheaded by the Center for Popular Democracy implored the state to “strengthen financial oversight of charter schools” to prevent further losses to taxpayers. According to the Los Angeles Times, one case referenced in the report involved a Los Angeles-area school that allocated millions of dollars in state funding to the school’s director and some close associates. Similarly, the NAACP garnered attention in 2016 when it called for a “moratorium on privately managed charter schools,” citing what the group said were troubling instances of, among other things, “fiscal mismanagement.” Despite lingering questions over how charter schools are operated, the federal government has continued to embrace them under Donald Trump’s leadership.
Late in 2016, former President Obama’s education secretary, John King, insisted that he did not think the growth of charter schools should be thwarted by what he called “arbitrary caps” that would limit or halt the expansion of charter schools. In a Christian Science Monitor article, King heaped praise on “high-performing” charters, which he said are successfully preparing kids for college at greater rates than traditional neighborhood schools.
“We’ve got to ask what’s best for students and parents,” King stated, while also acknowledging that charters must be scrutinized—and, perhaps, shut down—if they are not providing an adequate education. King’s calls for greater oversight matches that of civil rights groups such as the NAACP, which issued a statement in October 2016 calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools until, among other things, “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.”
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