A lack of oversight of the nation’s charter schools has led to too many cases of fraud and abuse and too little attention to equity, according to a new report that offers recommendations to remedy the situation.
The largest problems are a lack of transparency and having school managers serve on
governing boards, said report author Leigh Dingerson, a consultant to the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. The institute released the report, Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight, on Thursday.
In one example, about $1.8 million in public money provided to the Cleveland Academy of Scholarship, Technology, and Leadership Enterprise was funneled to 13 shell companies associated with members of the governing board, according to the report.
Because of their autonomy from the regular public school system, charter schools in general face less scrutiny regarding finances, Dingerson said.
“There needs to be a full reporting of data and finances and a separation of governing boards from their management companies,” she said. “That would go a long, long way to cleaning up the most egregious waste of public dollars that I have seen.”
The report includes some startling examples, such as the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School in Philadelphia, which a report by a local TV station revealed was doubling as a nightclub in the school’s cafeteria at nights and weekends.
Jason Mandell, director of Advocacy Communications for the California Charter Schools Association, said his organization supports transparency. But, he said, “there is a danger of being so restrictive that you are missing the entire point of the flexibility and autonomy allowing charters to thrive.” He pointed out that public schools and districts have also been charged with financial mismanagement.
“There needs to be a full reporting of data and finances and a separation of governing boards from their management companies,” said Leigh Dingerson, author of the report. “That would go a long, long way to cleaning up the most egregious waste of public dollars that I have seen.”
Dingerson agrees that fraud can happen anywhere, but she pointed to a report that found losses of $100 million due to fraud and corruption in charter schools across the country, including a few of the 1,130 charter schools in California. The charter schools association, in a response to that report, said California law is stronger than laws in many other states.
“There are things that happen in charter and regular schools that you just can’t legislate to prevent,” Mandell said.
Still, Dingerson said, “I think there are protections that could be in place that might at least help ferret out the fraud and corruption before it goes too far down the road.”
She said other charter school problems include rules and procedures that result in excluding students. Charter schools sometimes have different enrollment and registration procedures than regular public schools that make it difficult for some parents to enroll their students. For example, the schools may require a Social Security card, barring immigrant children from enrolling. Or parents may have to travel outside the city during working hours to enroll their children, making it difficult for low-income parents, who often have less flexibility at work as well as a lack of transportation. Charter schools may require parents to volunteer, and most have a parent or student contract.
“I don’t think I’ve ever run into a charter school that didn’t require a parent/student contract,” Dingerson said. “It discourages enrollment.” It also gives the school a reason to expel students who misbehave or underperform, she said.
Dingerson said charter schools in the nation as a whole do not serve as many English learners and special education students as regular schools. Mandell agreed that in California overall there are fewer English learners and special education students in charter schools than in regular schools, “though the gap isn’t huge.” In 2012-13, California charters enrolled about 17 percent English learners, who made up almost 22 percent of the state’s population that year, he said. However, he said, charter schools in Los Angeles that are independent of the Los Angeles Unified School District serve 1 percent more English learners than regular schools. Mandell had no specifics about special education students in California charters statewide readily available, but he said the independent Los Angeles charters served about 2 percent fewer special education students than regular schools.
The report offers seven policy recommendations:
- Traditional districts and charter schools should work together to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children.
- School governance should be representative and transparent. Only 10 states – California is not among them – require a parent to be on the governing board.
- Charter schools should ensure equal access to interested students and prohibit practices that discourage enrollment or disproportionately push enrolled students out of school.
- Charter school discipline policy should be fair and transparent.
- Districts and charter schools should work together to ensure that facilities arrangements do not disadvantage students in either sector.
- Online charter schools should be better regulated for quality, transparency and the protection of student data.
- Monitoring and oversight of charter schools should be strong and fully funded by the state.
Although the Annenberg Institute’s report did not include any specific California examples, Dingerson said her research pointed to some problems. For example, the national Knowledge Is Power Program, better known as KIPP charter management organization, has schools in California. KIPP, nationally known for helping low-income students graduate college-ready, has been criticized for its high attrition rates of African-American students.
Dingerson said charter schools should offer a full range of services. For example, she said about 17 percent of charter schools in California do not participate in the federal free and reduced-price meals program even when they serve students who qualify.
UPDATED: A previous version of this story included a photo of a school that was not featured or implicated in any way in the findings or conclusions of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform report.