Blog: The Educated Reporter

Holding Charter Schools Accountable

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits  Pembroke Pines Charter High School in Florida in 2012. Some policy analysts contend the bar for authorizing new charter schools is set too low in the Sunshine State as well as Arizona. (Flickr/U.S. Department of Education)

With charter schools serving about 6 percent of America’s public school students, most everyone — from teachers’ unions to researchers to right-leaning advocates — seems to agree that the publicly funded but independently run schools are here to stay. That much was clear from an Education Writers Association panel on the future of charter schools, held last month in Denver.

But what happens next is up for debate.

While panelists agreed that charter schools need stronger accountability, as they are rarely closed for low academic performance and sometimes prove fertile ground for fraud and mismanagement abuse, there was tremendous disagreement over what that should look like.

“The accountability must be dramatically upped,” said David Welker, a campaign director at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union. But he maintained that charter school advocates often preach accountability with little meaningful action in mind.

Going too far with accountability, said Michael Petrilli, the president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “can also be used as a way to kill charters.” And that’s because, he said, “a highly regulated charter school is an oxymoron,” meaning that adding too many strictures to charter schools, whose uniqueness derives from their relative autonomy, would erode their purpose.

Accountability should focus on making charter schools more accessible to all families, said Kevin Welner, an education professor who leads the University of Colorado, Boulder’s National Education Policy Center. “The whole underlying premise of school choice is that you have a parent or guardian that is understanding the sector,” he said. “There are people in the charter school sector who have been looking for ways to strengthen that (parents’ access to all schools, regardless of their motivation or income). I don’t think you can get around that problem. It’s … an access issue.”

Another access issue, Welker said, is charter schools that “have application packages available one day a year at a country club.” Indeed, in September 2014, Newsworks reported that a staffer at a Philadelphia charter school called Green Wood “said the application would only be made available at this year’s open house, again being held at a suburban country club.”

Petrilli said the argument that charter schools lead to the resegregation of American schools is a red herring used to stop the progress of charter schools.

“There were these segregation academies and they still exist,” Petrilli conceded. “There are some towns where all the white kids go to a private school, built as a way to escape desegregation. That exists but it’s not on the whole representative of the charter school sector.”

Welner said charter schools often reinforce social divisions.

“We’re still seeing stratification, … though not necessarily by race,” he said. Welner explained that enrolling in charter schools takes effort, and that effort tends to reward parents less constrained by poverty.

The true state of charters schools in different regions is not accurately captured by sweeping characterizations, said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “These broad brush national criticisms around access aren’t accurate,” he said.

Welker agreed, saying that in markets where there has been “thoughtful and slow growth,” fraud has mostly been kept at bay. In places like Arizona and Florida, he said, where dozens of charter schools open and close each year, “the bar is too low for entering.”

Ohio, all the panelists agreed, is particularly weak in holding charter schools to their promise. As Petrilli noted, in the Buckeye State, more than 80 organizations can green-light the opening of a new charter school – meaning there is ample opportunity for prospective schools to peddle their wares to different, often uncoordinated authorities. As a result, too many poor-quality charter schools have opened. As Welker put it, “the horse has left the barn and copulated.”

Much depends on the authorizers, Petrilli said: “If you want high-quality charters, you have to make sure the right people are doing the authorizing.”

Efforts by unions to organize charter schools will likely continue, Welker said, but he conceded that the NEA is often in a tough position vis-a-vis such schools. “It’s a very tricky challenge in part because of our own rhetoric and what we have said previously [about charters],” he said. “It is a tricky challenge because our present dues-paying membership does not yet see their colleagues in charter schools as true peers, and that’s a very big problem for us.” (The share of unionized charter schools was about 7 percent as of 2012, according to a study by the pro-charter Center on Education Reform.)

It’s also a problem, Welker said, that critiques of charter schools tend to focus on policy over pedagogy. “We don’t really have a great policy discussion about, is a blended learning program where a third grader spends 75 percent of his time in front of a computer system, is that good education?” he asked. Welker added that the union has a lot to contribute in this area.

“Instead, we are in a conversation about what needs to happen so there is less fraud in the charter system,” he said.