Public Charter Schools and Accountability
Earlier this week, the Brookings Institution released the fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, which ranks school choice in the largest school districts in the U.S.
During her address, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claimed that “parents are the primary point of accountability.” When asked about policies that ensure that schools of choice are actually improving student performance, she answered that “the policies around empowering parents and moving the decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.” She later repeated the idea that transparency and information, coupled with parental choice, equated to accountability.
While it is indeed important to communicate information on school choice, transparency and information are only part of the accountability puzzle. In addition to these components, states also use accountability to ensure that schools that fail to meet academic or financial standards are improved or closed.
This is of particular importance for public charter schools, who have been given the authority to operate independently of school districts and many state rules or regulations. Accountability rules assure that students are learning and that public funds are spent responsibly.
While the accountability measures used for charter schools to demonstrate quality performance vary from state to state, they do exist, and they include more than just reporting information to parents.
Forty-three states had charter school laws in place when we completed this analysis (not including Kentucky, which passed a bill in March 2017 to allow charter schools). We examined four points of accountability within the charter school policies as recorded by the Education Commission of the States: annual reporting, specifications for termination, performance-thresholds, and technical assistance.
Most states require charter schools to submit annual reports as a part of their accountability obligations. Some annual reporting requirements include annual report cards, education progress reports, curriculum development, attendance rates, graduation rates, and college admission test scores. Many states that do not require annual reports still require financial reports, which speaks to the other side of accountability, appropriate usage of funds.
- Some states, such as Washington, require charter schools to provide the same annual school performance reports as non-charter schools.
- In Ohio, each charter is required to disseminate the state Department of Education’s school report card report to all parents.
- North Carolina requires its charter schools to publish their report performance ratings, awarded by the State Board of Education, on the internet. If the rating is D or F, the charter school must send written notice to parents. North Carolina also requires specific data reporting related to student reading.
State Specification for Termination
Forty-two states specify the grounds for terminating a charter school, fostering accountability by establishing standards and consequences of failure to adhere to those standards. Failure to demonstrate academic achievement and failure to increase overall school performance are among the terms cited as grounds of termination among some states.
These state specifications for termination do not only apply to performance levels; they can be applied to a violation of any part of the charter law or agreement, such as fraud, failure to meet audit requirements, or failure to meet standards set for basic operations.
In addition to state specifications for termination, some states have set a threshold marking the lowest point where a school can perform before it is closed. Some states without a clearly communicated low-performance threshold have set other standards which specifically mark the lowest point of acceptable performance.
Setting a minimum threshold for performance for the automatic closure of failing schools may increase charter school accountability, and encourage high performance.
State-Provided Technical Assistance
Technical assistance to charter schools included leadership training or mentoring charter school leaders, or assistance with grant and application writing and other paperwork related to charter school operation.
In addition to holding charter schools accountable for high performance, several states offer technical assistance to ensure that charter school administrators understand how requirements are measured, and can be directed to resources to assist them with achieving performance goals, especially if they are at risk of closure due to failing to meet previously established standards.
These are clear displays of school accountability policies that help to ensure that parents have truly good schools from which to schools. Accountability relies not only on information for parents, but also consequences for schools that fail to educate students or use taxpayer dollars responsibly.
 The following states also require annual financial audits with their annual performance reports: Arkansas, Arizona, DC, Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Utah
 Utah requires the most comprehensive technical assistance offerings, provided by the state charter school board which includes: assistance with the application and approval process for charter school authorization, locating private funding and support sources, and understanding and implementing charter requirements.