Auditor: Charter schools too new to gauge effectiveness

Auditor: Charter schools too new gauge effectiveness
A new audit by the Office of the State Auditor says it’s too early to tell whether charter schools are effective. However, one of its recommendations is garnering mixed reviews among some education experts. Created by Jcomp - Freepik.com

Washington state charter schools are still too new to determine how effective they are at educating students in their classrooms, according to a new audit by the Office of State Auditor Pat McCarthy. Meanwhile, the audit recommends that the schools switch to weighted enrollment preferences, an idea that has garnered a mixed response by some Washington education reform experts.

The audit’s release comes less than a month after the State Supreme Court upheld the legality of the 12 charter schools operating under a 2016 state law. It found, among other things, that almost all the schools enrolled higher percentages of low-income and disabled students than the rest of the schools in the same district. The charter schools also “largely complied” with relevant sections of the Open Public Meetings Act.

“We looked at whether charter schools have enrolled the types of students identified in their charters, whether they have complied with certain state and federal requirements, and whether their charter agreements include appropriate performance frameworks,” the audit stated. “We also examined the extent to which the charter schools and traditional schools work together. The results were mixed, which is not surprising given the newness of the entire charter school system in Washington. It is worth noting that during the course of the audit, charter schools made efforts to address some of the deficiencies found as a result of this audit.”

The audit concluded that “unfortunately, the newness of the system also keeps us from addressing another question about Washington’s charter schools—how effective are these schools at teaching students? As the system matures and more years of data accumulate, this is a logical question that should be addressed.”

In a response, Washington Charter School Association CEO Patrick D’Amelio argued that “overall, we would respectfully contend that these results are much better than ‘mixed.’ Summit Learning’s collaboration with Washington school districts is an excellent example of district-charter collaboration. And charter school agreements include appropriate performance frameworks that are aligned with state laws and national best practices.”

The dozen schools have a total of 3,500 students enrolled, and they are chosen based on a lottery system. The state law prohibits creating enrollment preferences “except by age group, grade level, or enrollment capacity.”

However, among the audit’s recommendations is that the legislature amend the 2016 state law to require “approval of admissions policies and weighted enrollment preferences by the charter school’s authorizer.”

Opposed to that idea is Washington Policy Center Education Director Liv Finne. She told Lens that while it “was encouraging that they didn’t attempt to evaluate student performance yet because they’re so new,” the prohibition on weighted preferences is an “important principle to defend here. Inevitably, the whole purpose of charter schools it to free them up from regulatory encroachment by the central planners in the state that deeply resent any competition to the traditional school model.”

Finne also fears that the change in how students are selected could eventually cause charter schools to take on a disproportionate percentage of low-performing students. She added that this could be used by opponents of charter schools as proof that they aren’t delivering results.

“If the charter schools can’t attract parents to their schools and they’re not doing well, that’s the best accountability system we have,” she said.

Robin Lake is the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, co-author of the 2014 paper Making School Choice Work.

The center also recently published a paper concluding Washington charter schools “are serving students with disabilities, and almost all of them are doing so at rates higher than the state average, and the district in which they are located.”

Lake told Lens that the option for weighted enrollment preference should be an option, but ultimately the schools should get to decide for themselves whether to pursue it. For some charter schools, weighted preference helps bring in specific demographics they’re trying to serve. For example, High Tech High is a California-based charter school that uses a zip-code-based lottery to ensure student diversity.

“If there’s an issue, if there’s a school that doesn’t have a representative student population for the neighborhood…that is really the role of the authorizer to ask ‘What is going on?’” she said.

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