California needs reasonable, clearly defined and well-enforced rules for charter school oversight, a point driven home by a recent report issued by the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. The study concluded that 253 California charter schools may have been in violation of state law because of discriminatory admissions policies.
The best way to address this situation is to make a structural change in the state's oversight process.
California's system for authorizing charter schools — that is, approving charter schools and monitoring them — is splintered among more than 320 local, county and state agencies. This is far too many — we know that too many authorizers mean that schools are subjected to a patchwork of differing standards and practices. Most authorizers are school districts, but charter school organizers may also approach county offices of education for authorization, and the state Department of Education sometimes plays a role as well.
Charter schools are not the primary focus of any of these agencies. Instead, school districts and county education offices were mandated to oversee charter schools by the state Legislature and they are now stuck with a complex task many never wanted to begin with. School districts in particular, working within tight budgets, often don't have the capacity or staffing to deal effectively with charter schools. Most districts must direct the majority of their time and energy into operating traditional public schools.
What's the result?
The ACLU/Public Advocates report reviewed the websites of 1,000 of the state's 1,200 charter schools, and found that a quarter of them had admissions policies that erected barriers to some children, including low-income students and English learners. Some schools required elaborate essays or auditions, or mandated volunteer work by parents. By law, charters, which are taxpayer-funded public schools, must be open to all California schoolchildren. Although the report makes it clear that a majority of California's charter schools meet their obligation to all the children in their communities, too often, no one is paying attention when an individual charter school does something wrong.
It is time to end California's splintered system of oversight.
First, the state should intentionally reduce the number of authorizers by allowing school districts to opt out of the oversight role. Any district that wishes to remain an authorizer should be required to submit a detailed plan to the state showing how it will provide sufficient resources and attention to the work of overseeing charters. Give districts three years to submit an acceptable plan or lose their power to oversee charter schools.
But then the state must also create an alternative, dedicated oversight system for charter schools that want to open in districts that don't authorize charters. These oversight boards could be set up at county offices of education, or consolidated into a statewide chartering board. In either case, the system could be funded through a fee deducted from each charter school's revenue.
In states where charter oversight is consolidated and more closely regulated, the results have been notable. We've seen higher standards enforced and best practices increase in Minnesota, after the state required authorizers to apply for the privilege of overseeing schools. In Colorado, a statewide authorizing board was created in 2004, allowing districts to opt out of authorizing. The board now oversees 35 charter schools across 18 towns and cities in the state.
Finally, California should clarify the state rules that govern admissions policies at all public schools, traditional, magnet and charter. It should also set rules for charter authorizers' role in enforcing those policies.
Hundreds of charter schools in California are delivering good academic results for students and treating students fairly. Where school districts have the desire, the budget and the personnel to adequately authorize charters, district-level oversight can work.
However, where authorization and oversight are flawed, and where schools aren't abiding by the law, the state must establish a better system to ensure an equitable education to all.
Greg Richmond is the president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Charter School Authorizers.