Progressive Voices

Expansion of charter schools should bring better oversight and more accountability

Charter schools remain among the most controversial and divisive subjects in the national debate over public education. Some see them as them as a critical solution to what ails K-12 schools while others see them simply as a first step toward privatization with no proven track record of success.

One thing that all agree on, however, is this: if charters are ever going to be of any real systemic help, states must provide adequate oversight so that charters are put in a position to succeed and promote innovation and failing charters are not simply left to languish. Unfortunately, recent action by North Carolina education officials may make such a result impossible in North Carolina.

Earlier this month, the State Board of Education voted to approve all 25 charter school applicants that had been recommended by the Charter School Advisory Council as a single block. This was on top of eight new charter schools already approved by the Board to open this fall during a “fast-track” process in March. This brings the total number of new charter schools approved in the last year to 33 – a 33% increase.

For the already understaffed Office of Charter Schools, this is a huge increase in responsibility. In addition to supporting and monitoring the 108 charter schools that are already operating across the state, the tiny office must now help 25 new charter schools prepare to open in the fall of 2013.

Currently, the Office only has three full-time consultants to oversee 133 charter schools, or one consultant for every 44 schools. The national average is one consultant for every nine charter schools. Without adequate oversight, important objectives such as the sharing of best practices, meaningful financial oversight, and ensuring that charter schools are open, accessible, and able to serve all students simply cannot be accomplished.

Numerous charter school advocates, most notably Greg Richmond, President of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, have called for better oversight. Richmond testified before Congress as to the need to ensure that charter schools are more closely monitored for their admissions standards, financial stewardship, and academic standards in order to ensure that the charter school movement is not harmed by the lax standards.

Here in North Carolina, charter schools are already exempt from a broad swath of accountability measures that apply to traditional public schools. Charter schools are not required to provide transportation to students, and those that do provide transportation are not subject to the same safety standards as are traditional public schools. Many charter schools use older buses and vans that would not be allowed to transport traditional public school students. Charter schools are similarly exempt from public bidding laws, are not required to provide free and reduced price lunches for students living in poverty, and all teachers are not required to be licensed as is the case with traditional public schools.

The charter school approval process is similarly marked by a lack of adequate oversight and scrutiny. By the Charter School Advisory Council’s own measures, the 25 charter school applicants approved as one block by the State Board of Education vary widely in terms of the quality of their applications.

While the best applicants received no “inadequate” scores upon review by the Council, were deemed “excellent” on many measures, have clearly identified facilities for their school, and provide transportation to students,  others received no “excellent” scores and were deemed “inadequate” on a number of measures, including transportation, staff, health and safety, and plans to serve special education students.  Unfortunately, however, the State Board chose to treat all of these applicants as if they were the same quality by approving all 25 in one fell swoop.

The consequences of approving charter school applicants that vary dramatically in quality are real, as evidenced by the varying quality of the charter schools that already operate across the state. There are some charter schools in North Carolina that may serve as models that all public schools can learn from. There are also 44 charter schools that closed between 1997 and 2010 due to lack of enrollment, financial problems, and lagging student achievement. School closures have obvious and potentially serious consequences for the students affected and it is difficult to make up for the educational loss these students experience.

The charter school approval process should be designed to ensure that all charter schools opening in North Carolina have more in common with the best charter schools than with those that have failed and closed. As the number of charter schools in the state increases, the staff that oversees them must grow as well.

North Carolina stands on the brink of a period of rapid expansion in the number of charter schools. Charter school oversight and accountability must improve now to ensure that this growth is fiscally and educationally responsible. If nothing is done to improve the oversight of these schools, the educational futures of thousands of North Carolina students will be needlessly jeopardized.

Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.