News & Politics

New Report Sheds Light on Charter-School Oversight

Spending on personnel doubles in three years, but DC closes charters at higher rates than other districts

A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows how fast oversight of District charter schools has grown in the last three years. It also suggests that the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board is doing a fairly good job of shutting down schools that underperform or are mismanaged—but the city is starting up schools that fail at a faster rate than the national average.

Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, the Public Charter School Board, the group of seven volunteer board members and 25 employees who oversee the city’s 52 charter schools, saw its personnel costs jump from $1 million to $2.2 million. Some of that expense was driven by a move to hire outside consultants as part of the schools’ review process.

The board’s been able to pay for its increasing expenses in part because it’s drawn more money from the schools themselves, which remitted $1 million in administrative payments to the board in fiscal 2007 and almost $2 million in fiscal 2010. In 2007, 19,733 students attended DC charter schools. By the start of the 2009-10 school year, that number was up to 28,107. The board has also dramatically increased its outside revenue sources.

Data from the report suggests that as the charter system has expanded, the board has moved fairly promptly to close schools that fail to live up to standards. Since the board began granting charters in 1996, it has closed down 24 of the 76 schools it’s opened. Of those 24, three gave up their charters voluntarily and four gave them up after they couldn’t attract enough students to stay financially viable.

Of the remaining schools, 16 were shut down for failing to meet the board’s standards for academic success, governance and management, or financial practices. The board is required to review the charters it grants every five years during the 15-year term each charter lasts. But the board actually moved to close nine of those 16 failing schools before the five-year-review mark, and it pulled another five schools’ charters a year after they’d passed their five-year reviews, even though they weren’t necessarily due for reviews for another four years. One school was shut down after operating for five years, another after operating for ten, and a third voluntarily gave up its charter after the board voted to put it on probation.

But even if the board is doing a good job of closing problem schools, the numbers suggest that the District’s charter schools are getting into trouble at a higher rate than charter schools as a whole. A 2009 report from the Center for Education Reform found that between 1992 and 2009, 5,250 charter schools had opened in US districts and 657, or 12.5 percent, had closed. By contrast, a third of the District’s charter schools have failed. And while 27 percent of national charter schools that have been shut down were closed for mismanagement, 11 of the 24 DC charter schools that have been shuttered since 1996 were closed for “management deficiencies.”

The problem, it seems, isn’t oversight after the fact—it’s picking the proposals for schools that have the best chance to succeed during the application process. And if the Public Charter School Board could find a way to weed out schools that were likely to fail, the organization might need fewer of those outside performance review consultants that are driving up its personnel costs.

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