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Boston — Good morning, Chairwoman Chang-Diaz, Chairwoman Peisch, and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I am not here to address any of individual bills before you today. Nor am I here to walk you through my office's 2014 audit of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s oversight of the state’s charter school system. By now you all have read and digested our findings relative to the inaccurate counts of students on wait lists, the inconsistency in standards for charter renewals, and the lack of sufficient collaboration between public schools and private schools. I know that these and many other aspects of charter schools and their oversight are addressed to varying degrees by the bills before you.
What I am here to do instead is point out what we tried to but could not learn from that audit.
It had been my hope that the audit would examine not just the topics I just mentioned. Another goal had been to get meaningful, unbiased, and complete data so that when this annual debate next took place, you and the public would have access to more facts. I have long believed in, and as State Auditor am committed to, the notion that better information makes for better public policy.
We especially wanted to know whether the student bodies of charters shared the demographic characteristics of the sending districts, as the law requires, and whether there were measurable differences in the academic outcomes of the competing systems. These concerns have been part of the charter school debate for over twenty years, and we hoped that an examination of the data, using government auditing standards, might lead to conclusions that could be accepted and used by all sides in the debate. As the audit indicates, however, we could not answer those questions because we found the data collected and published by DESE to be unreliable.
When the audit was published, DESE dismissed this finding, telling the media that our concerns about data reliability were really about data security. While it is true that security concerns – things like user access and password protections - figured into this finding, we also explicitly questioned DESE’s data because, and I quote from the audit:
“DESE does not ensure the reliability of data submitted to it by all schools, including charter schools and districts. DESE’s Audit Compliance unit initiated limited pilot audit work at nine districts and one charter school to address data reliability during fiscal year 2013. Its audit results raise the possibility that significant reliability issues may exist for these data but do not provide an adequate sample to determine the extent of data reliability problems on a statewide basis. Without sufficient oversight and monitoring by DESE of the accuracy of schools’ reported data, there is an increased risk that unreliable or inaccurate data will be used by DESE, other state agencies, the Legislature, researchers, parents, and others for what DESE described in its audit reports as “high-stakes decision making.”
Why is this worth thinking about? It is because, more than 20 years after the passage of the law authorizing public funds to be spent on private schools, the debate about charter schools is still largely a philosophical one, and the battles in which the sides engage are still determined almost entirely by political power, not by evidence. If evidence were really guiding this debate, there would by now have been widespread adoption of the one best practice from charter schools that is proven to make a difference – a longer school day. But those holding the public purse strings, taxpayers and politicians alike, don’t want to make the financial investment that that reform entails. Instead, we continue with this zero-sum game.
This is the 21st century. We have the brain power and we have the ability to get the information necessary to inform our decision-making, so let’s base decisions about the future of our kids, our economy, and our society on facts.
After two decades and the transfer of millions of public dollars into the hands of private charter schools, there is still little more than anecdotal evidence of outcomes to support the contention that charter schools are better suited to meet the needs of our students and charter schools are still experiments.
Some may regard this testimony as a political statement offered in pursuit of a political agenda, but in my role as chief accountability officer for the Commonwealth, I have a responsibility to the taxpayers and to our kids to speak up when I see such enormous sums of taxpayer dollars put into private hands without evidence of its benefit. As I remind people when discussing of the so-called Pacheco law, the taxpayer is still on the hook when government outsources its functions.
As you consider the many bills before you today and weigh the varying recommendations that have been or will be provided to you, I ask that you consider not just the philosophical debate, but that you think about whether you have enough evidence on which to base your decisions. Do we truly understand the effect charter schools are having on our children’s education, how they impact sending school districts or whether they are adequately preparing our children from their future? Do we feel confident that innovation and best practices are being shared and that our children have equal access?
Without reliable and accurate data, we cannot answer those questions. I ask that as you move forward in these discussions, you make accountability and transparency a priority.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I am willing to answer any questions you may have.