Charter schools — public or not?

Monday, May 18th, 2009 at 8:54 pm by

Under a 2005 state law, every school district and BOCES in the state is due to be audited by the State Comptroller at least once by March 31, 2010.

That same law requires the Comptroller to also audit every charter school in the same time span.  But the statewide Charter School Association is disputing the Comptroller’s authority in court.  They won in State Supreme Court but lost in the Appellate Division.  Eventually the matter will be resolved by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Writing in Monday’s Buffalo News, Joe Williams, executive director of the national “Democrats for Education Reform” weighs in, arguing that Comptroller’s oversight is limited to auditing state agencies and political subdivisions of the state.  Since charter schools are operated by non-profit corporations, they are beyond the Comptroller’s reach, Mr. Williams argues.

Some charter advocates want it both ways.  They are quite ready to proclaim that charter schools are “public schools”, because they were defined as such in the 1998 state law which authorized their creation.

Of course, the Governor and Legislators could also pass a law  declaring themselves to be a ballet company, but that alone would not make them all good dancers.

Several of the contentions put forward in support of the charter schools’ position argue against accepting the claim of “public school” status:  they are not governed by publicly elected boards, nor are their budgets publicly voted upon.

It is also argued that charter schools lack taxing authority.  But that’s not completely true.  Once authorized by a state agency, they may compel school districts to hand over local tax dollars, whether the voters of the district or their elected representatives support the school’s existence or not.

Mr.  Williams also tries to justify exempting charter schools from the Comptroller’s jurisdiction by reciting the other requirements they operate under, including State Education Department oversight and annual independent audits, suggesting these obviate need for Comptroller audits.

Of course, the Council could have cited the applicability of those same considerations to school districts, to argue against the bill mandating the school audits.  But we supported that bill.

The Council was alone among statewide education groups in not opposing the 1998 charter school law.  We did raise concerns that the financing mechanism would hurt district schools and our fears have been borne out.

The law ensures a win-lose financial dynamic between charter and district schools.  Also, it effectively requires districts to continuously maintain the capacity to reabsorb students who abandon charter schools, or are abandoned by them.

At the same time, we acknowledged a possible role for charter schools as vehicles to promote innovation and to provide unique learning opportunities to students. But that potential has been minimally realized, if at all, where it is most needed — at the high school level.  Most charters are elementary schools — the level where public school results are typically strongest and parents seem most apt to be satisfied.

According to the Comptroller, 595 school districts have now had audits completed by his office.  Most districts seem to to regard their experiences as constructive.  It is puzzling that charter schools, otherwise so eager to proclaim their public school status, fight so vehemently to avoid this accountability.

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