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Charter schools need to be more accountable to public, report says

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Although the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the state's charter school system, that does not change the need for the schools to be more accountable to the public, according to a new report by an educational research center.

The report calls for a new system of public authorizers to monitor public charter school boards.

The report was issued by The Ohio Collaborative, a group of about 150 faculty from Ohio colleges and universities that does policy research on state educational issues.

"The Court's ruling is not a surprise," said Ann Allen, co-author of the report, and assistant professor of education at Ohio State University.

"But the rapid growth of charter schools in Ohio, along with the lack of oversight and lack of accessible information regarding these schools remains a cause for concern. If money is to be divested from district schools to charter schools, there needs to be a better system of checks and balances in place to protect the public's interests and the public's investment in public schooling.

Allen wrote the report with Dwan Robinson, a graduate student in education at Ohio State.

The state of Ohio currently funds 294 public charter schools, of which 115 are sponsored by private entities. The remaining 179 charter schools are sponsored by public entities such as public school districts. In all, the state spends about $425 million a year on public charter schools.

Allen said the state's charter schools don't have the level of oversight that is necessary.

"These charter schools use public dollars and should have the same responsibility for serving public interests as our district schools," she said.

In many cases, they don't have public meetings of their board, or the meetings are not sufficiently publicized. Often, they don't complete reports that would let parents and taxpayers know how well they are educating students, and how they are using their public dollars.

"We found in our work here that there are schools that are not reporting data to the state, and the state does not have a way for enforcing whether schools follow their legal obligations," Allen said.

The best way to remedy this would be to require charter schools to have a public, and not a private, sponsor, according to the report. However, the Supreme Court decision means private sponsorship will continue. But Allen said that, regardless of who sponsors them, charter schools should have public authorizers whose job would be to monitor the schools.

"Authorizers should be close enough to the schools to provide effective oversight but far enough away to allow for autonomy," according to the report. "County-level public authorizers or district boards may provide such a mix."

The report also recommends that the state establish criteria for charter school boards that include expectations of diverse representation. These board members should also attend training that ensures that they have an understanding of their public responsibilities, Allen said.

In addition, charter schools need to increase the flow of information to the public by publishing regular reports, and increasing access to public meetings so that parents and members of the public can attend, the report states.

Allen said when she was researching charter schools in Michigan, she attended one board meeting that was held in a school with locked doors.

"In most cases, I don't think charter schools are intentionally trying to be secretive. Often their board members are new to having public responsibilities and don't know and understand all the laws they operate under," Allen said. "That's one reason why they need more training."

While some proponents of charter schools have argued that the market system will weed out underperforming and badly run schools, the authors of the report say that is not the case.

"In fact, the lack of regulation may have created the opposite effect: a system of schooling in which poor performing charters remain open and continue to draw state financing away from district schools," the report states.

Allen said the report is not an indictment of charter schools in general. These schools have pressured district schools to become better and more open. However, because charter schools receive public funds, they must also be publicly responsible.

"The bottom line is that public charter schools need more rigorous accountability," she said.

The Ohio Collaborative is based at Ohio State. It is governed by a board that includes the state university education deans, and representatives from the Ohio Board of Regents, the Ohio Department of Education and the private university education deans.

Contact: Ann Allen, (614) 292-0289; Allen.952@osu.eduWritten by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu