AISR believes that public education is a societal commitment made to each and every child to build a unified and cohesive system that provides equitable and accessible public education in each state, district, and community. Families place an immense trust in public schools – both traditional public schools and non-traditional public schools such as charters – to provide that education in ways that exist in open view and are transparent and accessible to the public.

A quarter century after the first state law allowing charter schools was enacted, some 2.5 million students now attend more than 6,000 schools in 43 states. Concurrently, a portfolio of management services, vendors, policy firms, and advocacy organizations has grown to serve this burgeoning sector. 

To illustrate, in Massachusetts, a ballot question on charter school expansion will likely become the state's most expensive voter referendum in terms of campaign-related expenditures. According to The Boston Globe, the pro-charter school referendum campaign is spending $2.3 million in television advertising aimed at persuading residents to vote yes on Question Two, which would allow for the creation or expansion of up to 12 charter schools per year in the Bay State.  Simultaneously, the opposition launched an $800,000 television advertising campaign, according to the Globe. Overall referendum advertising spending, with the addition of print, radio, and online ads, will likely reach or exceed $5 million by the time voters cast their ballots in November.

And that’s just one state’s spending on a single ballot question.

State laws and authorization standards have not stayed abreast of this rapid growth, causing concern among many education stakeholders. Two years ago, AISR consulted parents, students, and educators; studied model charter standards and legislation; and published a report recommending a set of charter standards and policy recommendations to improve accountability and transparency. Today, those standards and recommendations have more relevance than ever. As voters go to the polls in November to consider candidates and ballot questions that have implications for charter school oversight, we offer these points to think about from a 2014 interview with AISR’s Richard Gray by Brown University’s news office and an updated examination of charter governance in Massachusetts.


Questions for Richard Gray

How can charter schools be improved?

Brown University, October 15, 2014

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform recently issued a report on charter schools that recommends changes to state charter legislation and charter authorizer standards. Those changes would reduce student inequities and improve transparency and accountability for the communities served. Richard Gray, director of community organizing and engagement at the Annenberg Institute, spoke with Courtney Coelho about the report and its ramifications.

What is the reason for the rapid expansion of charter schools nationwide?

Charters were created to support innovative strategies and practices that could be shared in order to help improve public school systems. Charter schools and the accountability structure that monitor them were never designed to operate at a scale large enough to replace the public school system. The exponential growth of chartering is due, in large part, to massive investments by funders like the Walton Family Foundation, which has provided over $355 million in start-up grants for new charter schools. This has occurred at the same time that public school systems overall have experienced severe cuts in funding. The U.S. Department of Education has also provided charter funding, including an announcement last week of almost $40 million in federal grants to seed new charter schools.

Among the report's recommendations, which would you say is the most urgent?

While we consider all the recommendations urgent, we would emphasize the need for reforms to charter governing boards. All charter boards and their members should be required to include elected parent representatives and comply with the same laws that govern other public school boards regarding public meetings, public records, conflicts of interest, and ethics. We have to ensure that charter school governing board members are accountable to students, educators, parents, and the school community and not tied to management companies or other corporations that directly profit from contracts with the school. Establishing a more participatory and representative governance oversight for charter schools will help make certain that public dollars remain in classrooms and will lead to greater transparency and accountability for some of the equally critical concerns about student enrollment practices, disciplinary policy, and others.

How would implementation of these recommendations benefit students?

Charter school autonomy was meant to benefit students, not corporations. The reason charters were freed from certain district rules was so that they could incubate new education practices, like longer school days or different ways to group students, that might be brought to scale if successful. The recommendations in our report do not challenge or interfere with the freedom of charter schools to innovate around educational practice. Instead, we are focusing on the lack of regulation and oversight around issues of management and transparency, democratic process, and concerns that some charters may be avoiding responsibility for some of their most vulnerable students. If the purpose of chartering is to improve educational practice, they must show that their strategies work for all children. The implementation of our recommendations would ensure that students are being served equitably in the school of their choice, whether it’s a charter or traditional public school.

How have school districts reacted to the report? Do you get the sense that they agree with the recommendations?

We’ve had a good response to the report, particularly at the state level. Since most charter regulations are part of state law, state legislatures should debate over appropriate regulation and adequate oversight of charter schools. Legislators in several states have expressed interest in the standards and have indicated that they plan to sponsor legislation calling for better oversight and correction of the problems identified in the report.

For example, a candidate for state auditor in Ohio has included one of our recommendations in his platform, and a legislator in Michigan has introduced a bill calling for a range of reforms to her state’s charter school law. Signs are good that charter accountability will be a big issue moving forward – not only because of the Annenberg Institute’s report, but out of a growing recognition nationwide that the charter school industry has gotten so big so fast that it has far outpaced current accountability mechanisms and resources.