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Charter Schools Embracing Standards to Improve Image

Times Staff Writer

California’s charter schools will launch a new accreditation program this week, one of the most ambitious efforts in the nation to give the experimental public schools an independent seal of approval and counter scandals that have hurt their image.

The Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, the state’s dominant accreditation organization, will join the California Network of Educational Charters, which represents about 70% of the state’s 436 charter schools, to administer the program.

The partnership brings together one of the six major regional accreditation agencies in the U.S. and a networking and advocacy group.

Therein lies both its promise and its potential limitations.

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The program, its designers say, will meld the traditional work of the association, an independent 40-year-old organization that checks the educational standards of most major universities and high schools, with a new set of financial and governance standards tailored to charter schools.

But by involving itself in accreditation, the charter network could invite charges -- faced by self-regulating industries ranging from chemical manufacturers to accounting firms -- that it is biased in the charter industry’s favor.

Charter school operators say the association’s role makes their effort particularly credible. And some charter school founders say the accreditation program could fill a void left by state education officials who, by their own admission, have been reluctant to investigate cheating charters.

Charters are public schools that receive tax dollars but that, to encourage innovation, have been held exempt from some regulations. In California, they serve more than 166,000 students. In a few notable cases, however, the school districts that establish and oversee charters have looked the other way as charter operators abused that freedom.

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An early Los Angeles Unified School District charter used taxpayer dollars to buy its director a sports car and to lease apartments. One San Bernardino County-based group used its charter to start a network of campuses with names like “Victory Baptist Day” and “Barstow Christian,” illegally teaching religion and charging parents tuition, even as it billed taxpayers for educating their youngsters.

Some charter schools have received state money for students who didn’t exist. Perhaps most notoriously, Gateway, a charter granted by the Fresno Unified School District in 1999, set up unregulated satellite sites, rolled up $1.3 million in debt, failed to do criminal background checks on employees, violated fire safety codes, exaggerated attendance numbers and taught Islam, the Fresno school board found. Gateway was shut down in January.

In response to reports of abuse, Gov. Gray Davis last month signed a bill full of new charter regulations that many school operators consider burdensome.

The new accreditation program’s designers hope it will help the public distinguish good charters from bad and head off further legislation in Sacramento.

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“Unless we do something, we’re going to get death by a thousand cuts through regulation,” said Ting L. Sun, co-founder of the Natomas Charter School near Sacramento, one of the first 12 schools to have signed up for a pilot version of the new accreditation program. “We want to say to people that we’re a good school, and we’re willing to open ourselves up to examination and accreditation to prove it.”

In general, accreditation is useful because it ensures that credits are transferable between schools, allows high schools to demonstrate to colleges that their graduates can handle college work and serves as a prerequisite for many grants, both public and private, that schools seek.

The partnership between the accreditation organization and the charter network is expected to be formally announced this week.

Written plans provided to The Times show that state charter schools will be eligible to apply for the accreditation beginning in March. By 2004, the network will accept only members that agree to apply for accreditation.

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The charter accreditation program will be billed as the nation’s first membership-based system, but the idea of accrediting charters is not wholly new. Private groups in Colorado and Arizona have accountability regimens, but without the scope of the California program. Last year the Washington-based American Academy for Liberal Education, an accreditation group for colleges, started a nationwide pilot program, but its capacity is limited.

“Accreditation is a valuable tool that can bestow an element of public trust and respect on charters,” said Michael Kayes, director of the Phoenix-based National Charter School Clearinghouse, which compiles data for charters.Planning for the new accreditation program began in early 2001. This year, the network hired David Jelinek, a Cal State Sacramento education professor, to lead a team developing accreditation standards.

At first, California charter schools will have to demonstrate financial and academic stability to be certified as candidates. Then, a school must prepare an extensive study of its own programs. That self-study will form the basis of a four-day visit and evaluation by an accreditation team consisting of at least four administrators from schools, probably two charter and two non-charter, across the state. The team will decide whether a school merits accreditation. The entire process will take about two years.

Charter school operators say they have supported the effort because the state government has refused their entreaties to do more checking on problem schools.

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Three times in the last two years, after news reports of unlawful activity in particular charters, network officials wrote the California Department of Education to ask for an investigation and to offer their expertise and assistance in any probe. Instead of investigating, the state passed on information to school districts that granted the charters. In two of the three cases, network board members say, the charter school agency never even got the courtesy of a reply.

In response, state education officials say they have neither the staff nor the clear legal authority to investigate charters. They also point out that the network has fought their efforts to demand more financial disclosure, citing high costs.

Charter school operators concede that accreditation will hardly stem all criticism. Many leading education reformers have soured on accreditation, saying the process merely sanctions mediocrity. The new program, like others, gives failing schools “remedial assistance” and the chance to reapply.

Some charter supporters fear that oversight by an establishment group like the association could rob charters of their distinctiveness.

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“For a large and diverse group of schools like charters, some kind of specialty, niche evaluation would probably be much more appropriate,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, which supports charters.

Some California charter schools, independent of the network, have sought and received accreditation by the association. One, the Cato School of Reason, gained accreditation for its educational programs through the association, but it was later shut down anyway by its chartering school district for financial and attendance irregularities.

California Charter Academy, the state’s largest charter network and a target of criticism by legislators and other charters, is now applying solely for the traditional association accreditation. Its chief executive, Steven Cox, said he sees no need for the new program and the involvement of the network.

“I find it odd that a trade association that is supposed to advocate for its members would think that it would also get to be the judge of its members,” Cox said.

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Designers of the accreditation program say its new fiscal checks will augment the association’s oversight and catch future Catos. Among the requirements are annual independent audits and a cash reserve representing 4% of a school’s annual revenue.

“We can’t be the police,” said Rick Piercy, the director of a charter school in Apple Valley and one of the new program’s designers. “I see us as citizens’ patrol. Accreditation can bring some extra eyes and ears that would [prevent] the government from chasing after shadows.”


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