As Scandals Plague Charter Schools, Calls for Oversight Grow

Critics say federal regulators need to rein in financial mismanagement and alleged discrimination against disabled kids.

Students wait for their teacher at Harlem Success Academy, a free public elementary charter school in New York City. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Allegations of fiscal mismanagement at a now-defunct charter school in Kansas City. Questions in New Orleans about how taxpayer dollars are allocated and spent at charters. Sweetheart deals among charter officials in Rochester, New York, and charges that a flagship New York City charter is kicking out students who need the most help.

Once hailed as a solution for struggling public schools—and still favored by education reform advocates, ambitious politicians, investment bankers, and some parents—charter schools from New York to New Orleans have made ugly headlines recently, bad news that trails behind the industry like the tail of a high-flying kite.

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Given other long-standing problems, including charges of de facto segregation and accusations that charters cherry-pick the best students for more favorable test scores, some public school advocates are asking whether it’s time for increased oversight of charter schools. It’s an ironic idea, given that freedom from bureaucracy was a founding principle of the charter movement. And some education experts say provisions in the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act are a step in that direction.

Charter school advocates “argued for removing many if not most of the rules and regulations around schools because they saw those as unnecessary impositions” that hindered academic performance, explains Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois.

When the movement launched nearly 20 years ago, charter school advocates envisioned publicly funded schools run by independent organizations, particularly in poor and underserved districts, where teachers would be encouraged to innovate in the classroom without asking permission from state or local education authorities. “But, as the saying goes, you might not want to tear down a fence until you know the reason why it was put up,” says Lubienski.

According to a report released last year from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group, more than 6,700 public charter schools enrolled about 2.9 million students nationwide during the 2014–2015 school year. But although 500 charter schools opened that school year, 200 others closed their doors.

“These schools closed for a variety of reasons, including low enrollment, financial concerns, and low academic performance. The public charter school model gives charters the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for improving student achievement,” wrote the report’s authors. “Charter schools that do not meet the needs of their students should be closed. The school closures during this school year provide evidence that the accountability part of the charter school model is being upheld.”

However, public education advocate Jeff Bryant says charters have a bad record when it comes to self-policing because of the system’s self-interest.

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“One of the reasons it’s been difficult to hold charter schools accountable is because of regulatory capture in the system; that is, people who are responsible for regulating charters are also the most ardent proponents for expanding charter schools,” says Bryant, who runs the Education Opportunity Network, a movement committed to student learning. “Many lawmakers and public officials who are responsible for regulating charter schools have deep ties to the charter school industry,” including John King, the acting U.S. education secretary, who as an educator in the 1990s helped open charter schools in Boston and New York, he explains.

Local control of charters “can actually sometimes provide an effective check on this regulatory capture,” Bryant says, “but there is so much money and pressure coming from the top down,” including millions from the federal government and charities like the Walton Foundation, “that local control can be overwhelmed.”

Indeed, a report from the National Center for Business Journalism, an arm of the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, says charter school oversight “varies widely across the country—and while some charter schools have succeeded well, many remain no better (or even worse) than their public school counterparts.”

Lubienski agrees with charter school advocates who say the bulk of the publicly funded schools are well run and effective. At the same time, statistics show charter schools expel students at a higher rate than traditional schools do, and a pending lawsuit in Delaware alleges charter schools foment racial segregation. A joint report released in April by two organizations that support traditional schools also found waste, fraud, and abuse in systems nationwide.

That’s where the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind, comes in. It includes provisions designed to increase transparency, promote equal treatment of all students, and align accountability of charters with local traditional public schools.

While the new law “does provide for more regulation of the charter industry,” including financial audits, enforcement could be a problem, says Bryant.

“To realize this transparency and reduce financial corruption in the charter industry, federal and state officials will need to implement the new law in a way that has some real regulatory teeth,” he says. “The charter industry and its advocates will likely continue to resist this.”

At the same time, the financial incentives designed to increase accountability—per-student allocations from government, along with parents’ freedom to withdraw their children from ineffective schools—aren’t as effective as they should be, Lubienski says.

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“On the former, the idea behind charter schools is devolution of control,” from top-heavy education bureaucracies to local organizations, “which often don’t have the capacity or expertise to run a school effectively but are politically connected,” he says. Professional management organizations, on the other hand, “may have more capacity but are often more susceptible to corporate-style fraud,” as they typically use for-profit models—or have political connections.

Despite flaws in the system, both Bryant and Lubienski believe charter schools will be part of the public education landscape for the foreseeable future.

“I see just as much enthusiasm as ever from policy makers, although I think the people concerned about these policies are becoming better organized,” Lubienski says. “I don’t see ‘the ardor for charters’ cooling so much as just some natural leveling off of the rate of growth after some initial waves of rapid proliferation.”