On Friday the White House issued a presidential proclamation naming May 5 -11 “National Charter School Week.” Charter Schools are publicly funded schools that are governed by an independent organization through a contract–or charter–with the state. This charter allows these schools to ignore some state or local rules in exchange for meeting standards written into the charter. About 5% of all schools in the U.S. are charter schools, with enrollment quadrupling from 1990-2000 to 2009-10 to 1.6 million students.
In Friday’s Proclamation, President Obama referred to charter schools as “learning laboratories” that offer educators “flexibility” to test new “new models and methods” in the classroom. “In return for this flexibility,” President Obama continues, “we should expect high standards and accountability.”
Accountability was the subject of a report from the Department of Education Office of the Inspector General last fall. This report said the department’s Office of Innovation & Improvement failed to ensure that State Education Agencies (SEA) awarded Charter School Programs grants adequately and oversaw and monitored those grants, which totaled $940 million from August 2007–September 2011. The report also found that none of the agencies studied “adequately monitored chartered schools receiving the grants” or even “had adequate methodologies to select charter schools for onsite monitoring.” Florida’s SEA did not even track how much grant money charter schools received and spent.
Last week charges were filed against five former officials at the Cleveland Academy of Scholarship Technology & Leadership Enterprise who were indicted for stealing about $2 million from the school. In addition, The Cleveland Academy received the worst academic ranking by the Ohio Department of education with a 28.6% graduation rate.
Charter schools have also failed to deliver promised educational dividends in Texas, where about one in 10 charter schools have been in danger of closing over failing to meet performance standards over the past decade. Nevertheless, the appeal of de-regulated schools led the Texas House Education Committee to vote to lift the cap on charter schools in the state.
Charter school performance has come under increased scrutiny–and suspicion–while the push at state and federal levels for “school choice” has not slowed. A large-scale study from Stanford University of 1,372 charter schools found that only 17% outperformed traditional public schools compared to 37% that scored worse. A 2010 Institute of Education Sciences report concluded that “charter middle schools…were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools.”
Issues ranging from charter schools being used as boundary-less athletic juggernauts to disproportionately low levels of enrollment levels for students with disabilities have shaped the controversy surrounding the spread of charter schools. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found that “about half of the charter schools we interviewed cited insufficient resources to serve severe disabilities as a challenge.”