Charter schools: More than just “laboratories”

Those who oppose charter schools, as well as those who say they don’t but really do, have argued that charter schools have not lived up to their promise of being “laboratories of innovation.”  The truth is that innovation is one of six purposes of charter schools, as outlined in the law (§ 115C‑238.29A).  The six purposes are as follows:

  1. Improve student learning;
  2. Increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as at risk of academic failure or academically gifted;
  3. Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods;
  4. Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunities to be responsible for the learning program at the school site;
  5. Provide parents and students with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system; and
  6. Hold the schools established under this Part accountable for meeting measurable student achievement results, and provide the schools with a method to change from rule‑based to performance‑based accountability systems.

Advocates and opponents of charter schools disagree about whether charter schools have done a good job meeting these goals.  For example, opponents of charter schools point to research by Helen Ladd and Robert Bifulco, which showed that charter school performance struggled between 1996 and 2002. Among other concerns, charter advocates rightly criticize this research on grounds that it is 2011.

Others have maintained that the effort to raise the 100-school cap on charters is an attempt to “weaken” or “abandon” public schools and create a “private, unaccountable system.”  Of course, the charter school law is pretty clear about this.  First, the law states, “it is the determination of the General Assembly that charter schools are public schools and that the employees of charter schools are public school employees” (§ 115C‑238.29F. (e)).  The frequent characterization of charter schools as “private” schools is an attempt to prey on the general public’s misunderstanding of the charter school concept.  Once citizens begin to believe that charter schools are private schools, it is easy to assert that they are unaccountable to the public. Shame, shame, shame.

Second, charter accountability is not only outlined in the “purpose” section above, but in addition to participation in the state testing program, charter schools are subject to following accountability measures:

  1. The school is subject to the financial audits, the audit procedures, and the audit requirements adopted by the State Board of Education for charter schools. These audit requirements may include the requirements of the School Budget and Fiscal Control Act.
  2. The school shall comply with the reporting requirements established by the State Board of Education in the Uniform Education Reporting System.
  3. The school shall report at least annually to the chartering entity and the State Board of Education the information required by the chartering entity or the State Board. (§ 115C‑238.29F (f))

Of course,  closure is the ultimate accountability measure.  District schools never have to worry about the threat of permanent closure, only the occasional slap on the wrist.

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