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Boston — State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump today released an audit of the administration of the charter school program by the Board of and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE and DESE). The audit contains recommendations for state education administrators to provide more assistance in the sharing of innovation and best practices between charter schools and traditional school districts, to improve consistency in charter renewals, and to improve program accountability and transparency by ensuring the accuracy of the information being gathered.
“In addition to our usual audit goals of ensuring that state agencies are meeting their obligations, we had hoped that our independent and objective analysis would help clarify some of the elements of the charter school versus district school debate. Charter schools have now had a 20-year track record in Massachusetts, and we believed it would be possible to make some solid assessments of the system and its results. Even to us, however, the situation remains murky because much of the data and standards employed are insufficient,” said Auditor Bump.
Massachusetts supports two types of charter schools. Commonwealth charter schools are established as freestanding government entities fully independent of traditional school districts, are operated independent of a school committee, and are managed by a board of trustees. Horace Mann charter schools operate under the approval and cooperation of the school committee. BESE has the authority to approve charter schools for renewable five-year terms. At the start of the 2014-2015 school year, there were 81 charter schools in Massachusetts. Of those, 71 are Commonwealth charter schools. The audit, reviewed state oversight of charter schools from July, 2009 through June, 2013.
A central element of the 1993 Education Reform Act was to establish charter schools as laboratories which would develop innovative practices to be shared with district schools. DESE is responsible for ensuring that these practices are developed and shared but has never defined what constitutes an innovative practice or created an environment for the dissemination of new practices in administration or teaching.
An audit survey of charter schools and their related traditional school districts illustrated a lack of clarity, little sharing of best practices, and in several cases, a difficult working relationship between charter schools and traditional school districts. In addition, the audit reported that of the 48 charter school renewals during the audit period, none were subject to adverse action for the lack of sharing of innovative programs and best practices.
Further, with regard to charter renewals, the state auditors found a lack of consistency in the standards applied. It was unclear why certain deficiencies in one charter school might mean a school’s charter being conditionally renewed while similar deficiencies at another school did not result in conditions being applied to its renewal.
“This process must be made much more transparent if the public and policy-makers are to have confidence in the quality of the charter schools and if the schools themselves are to know what is expected of them,” said Auditor Bump.
The accuracy of the data that DESE collects and shares was a major area of concern in the audit. Auditors found deficiencies in its calculation of charter school waiting lists and its ability to make accurate determinations of key charter school attainment measures, including whether the demographics of the student body were reflective of those of the sending district and how academic performance at charter schools compared with that of the district’s public schools.
Historically, DESE failed to produce an unduplicated waitlist. The report says the department did not gather mandated information – such as home addresses, telephone numbers, and dates of birth – which would prevent duplicate entries of students who applied to multiple charter schools. In addition, many charter schools maintained “rolling waitlists,” waitlists that allow the previous year’s entries to be automatically included in the following year’s record without being updated which puts this information at risk of being outdated. In recent years, DESE has begun to improve its calculations, but the audit suggests the process that DESE uses to perform this calculation still has issues that could result in overstating demand, although to a lesser extent.
“Lawmakers need sound information with which to make decisions. Charter school demand is one area where reliable calculations are required. Of even greater relevance, however, is the reliability of the data used to define equity between the parallel systems of district schools and charter schools and to compare educational outcomes,” Auditor Bump stated.
According to the audit, DESE does not verify information reported by schools with source documentation, does not ensure that standards of data quality are implemented at schools, and does not yet have a robust internal audit process to ensure the integrity of the data it receives. A pilot program launched by DESE and discussed in the audit found high error rates in the data reported, which raises uncertainty about the accuracy and reliability of data reported by all schools, both charter and traditional.
“This audit speaks to the concerns of both charter school advocates and their critics. This debate is about how to ensure that all children have access to effective learning environments which both instruct and enrich them and our communities. It is also about whether charter schools advance or detract from those efforts. It behooves BESE and, in fact, the incoming Governor to insist that DESE play a larger role in helping to answer these questions and enhance collaboration and accountability throughout our entire educational system,” said Auditor Bump.
The Office of the State Auditor conducts technical assessments and performance audits of state government’s programs, departments, agencies, authorities, contracts, and vendors. With its reports, the OSA issues recommendations to improve accountability, efficiency, and transparency.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Oversight of Charter Schools audit is available here.