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High-profile charter-school failures raise concerns about loose regulation

There was nothing gentle about the way parents, teachers, and students were informed that the Academy of Austin Charter School had closed. They simply arrived at the Texas school one morning last December to find an empty, locked building. Fortunately, the incident was not typical. Of the more than 2,000 charter schools that have sprung up in the United States since the movement began in 1991, only about 4 percent have failed, according to a report by the National School Board Association in Alexandria, Va.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, have garnered broad support as a way to increase public school choice for families. Both presidential candidates advocated rapid expansion of the concept during their campaigns.

But despite safeguards that allow for regular review of such schools - and revoking their licenses if they're performing poorly - some observers question the wisdom of considering expansion without first more carefully evaluating the charter schools already in existence.

"Any dramatic expansion of the charter-school movement through federal legislation without changes and improvements in legislation at the state level would be ill-advised," says Darrel Drury, director of the NSBA's department of policy research and one of the authors of the report.

A recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which is supportive of charter schools, states that 50 of 53 studies conducted since 1995 show on the whole that charter schools are succeeding. The studies indicate that schools are working to provide new opportunities for their students, as well as to push traditional public schools toward reform.

Nonetheless, a report released at about the same time by the NSBA, which represents traditional public schools, paints a more somber picture. It acknowledges that parental and student satisfaction with charter schools is currently high. But it goes on to argue that with a few exceptions, schools have yet to prove that they can boost student achievement or positively impact other public schools. The report also warns that unless state legislatures strengthen the rules governing charter schools, the movement could lose support.

Revoking a school's charter

The concern becomes particularly acute when a school is in bad enough shape to close. In Minneapolis, when the Right Step Academy charter school had its charter revoked in late July of this year due to charges of financial and academic mismanagement, the school district found itself suddenly scrambling to locate spaces for 85 elementary-school students.

The Urban League of Minneapolis, which operated a school in the city as a contractor to the district, was able to take on the stranded kids, re-opening a school at the failed school's site and rehiring some of the faculty who had just lost their jobs.

"It was hectic and crazy around here, but it's working out," says Perry Price, academic education administrator for the Urban League, of the rush to get the new school up and running. Most students, he says, appear to have made a good adjustment.

But many parents were angry, he reports, when they found out midsummer that their kids might not have a school to report to in September. Some of the teachers rehired from the charter school also required reassurance before agreeing to come back to work. They told stories of not receiving paychecks and of lacking basics like books and paper.

A look at Texas

Such serious failure to perform is not at all typical of the charter-school movement. But Oklahoma, South Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey have all seen charters shut their doors in recent months. And Texas, where education reform has been a much-touted priority, has taken the lead in high-profile charter failures. In addition to the midnight disappearance of the Academy of Austin, 14 other Texas charters have shut their doors as well since 1996, out of 176 originally in operation, according to the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund.

A report by the Education Fund chronicles what it sees as the failures of the movement in the Lone Star State. It tells tales of nepotism and conflict of interest in both hiring practices and school-board appointments, financial mismanagement, inappropriate religious ties, and unsafe physical conditions at certain schools.

The stories range from the ridiculous to the outrageous. There are charges of financial impropriety, including the case of a school director accused of using funds to pay for her dental work.

Another charter-management company, called Life's Beautiful Education Centers, opened four Texas charters named L.O.V.E., H.O.P.E., P.O.W.E.R., and F.A.I.T.H. In only one semester, according to the Texas Freedom Network report, each school ran up a debt of about $200,000, draining state coffers of almost $1 million before they closed.

Politics enters the fray

But charters' supporters insist that to focus on such abuses is to fail to recognize the power and potential of the movement.

"It does worry me that some states are giving carte blanche to any carpetbagger," says Gerard Robinson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But when he helped open a charter in New Jersey, he was impressed with the resources and the practical help offered by the state.

The debate over whether sufficient safeguards are in place is to some extent politically driven, he says.

"Those who support charters are going to say there are enough, those who don't will say that there aren't," he says. He offers a reminder: "This is an experiment. Some are going to fail."

It's hard to make broad statements about charter regulations. Because laws are made at the state level, it "is a mixed bag as you look at the 38 states that have charter school [laws]," says Katherine Merseth, director of the School Leadership Program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "You have to ask a lot of questions and understand what state you're working in."

She praises Massachusetts for doing an excellent job of regulating its charter schools, while she says that some states - such as Arizona - have loose regulations that raise serious concerns.

But as for an overheated expansion of the charter-school movement, Professor Merseth says that's simply not going to happen. "Most states are approaching their limits [of the number of charter schools permitted]," she says. "We'll see the growth tail off some now."

She says that focusing on failures is to lose sight of what charters have brought to public education. "They attract good people, and they're attracting capital to a system that never had much cachet with the world," she says.

Rachel Rohrer used to be a supporter. Three years ago when she enrolled her three children in a San Antonio charter school, she thought she had found "just what I was looking for."

But, she says, promises were broken. She had been assured her children's teachers would be certified, but found out many were not and that it was difficult to get details about their educational backgrounds. She also expected a 15:1 student-to-teacher ratio in her son's sixth grade, but the class was much larger.

Enough regulation?

Parental involvement quickly tailed off, too. She was thrilled to see 400 parents at the first school meeting, but the last time she attended, only 14 parents were present, she says.

Ms. Rohrer says she found serious problems with the curriculum and behavior policies, and the lack of training for teachers.

She recently removed two of her children from the school and returned them to traditional public schools. "It was a hard decision to make, and it's been a big disappointment," she says.

What troubles her most, though, she says, is the lack of state accountability. When the school opened, Gov. George W. Bush came and gave what she calls "a really good speech." She remembers feeling hopeful.

But later, when she began discovering broken promises and reported them to various authorities, she found that help was slow in coming.

"It really bothers me when I hear [Governor Bush] up there talking about new charter schools," she says. "They don't even know what's happening with the charters they've already opened."

Rohrer still has one child in the school and her husband is the sole parent serving on the school's board. But she holds little hope for major improvement. "The sad part is they had a good product there," she says. But without more regulation and accountability, she believes, the school didn't stand a chance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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